All Things



Author’s Note

The following is a work of fiction; accounts of supernatural events will include apocryphal, fanciful, and folkloric elements which are not strictly veracious. Likewise, the portrait of Heaven’s premises is not authoritative; any accuracy in the depiction of Heaven, especially Heaven’s political structure, is owing to the work of systematic theologians, principally Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, and Clement of Alexandria; and one who was anathematized, Origen.


[Footnotes, which are collected at the end, provide indispensable detail on the motives and causes of the insurrection here narrated.]











All Things






BOOK ONE: The Old Dispensation





Chapter One, In Which the Word “Never” Finally Applies




To be only average in life – never to be special, to be just adequate – is, for a man, the luckiest, most liberating fate. A man, in any case, will believe whatever he likes. Virgil Sproehnle, at the age of thirty-eight on a Monday morning carrying all his regular, normal competence and optimism, drove in his yellow Lexus SC convertible out of San Francisco by way of Marin County, rather than taking the Bay Bridge, because in Marin he liked passing the Terra Linda exit, seeing all the old places: Patio World, the True Value, the self-storage place. Nobody lived in Terra Linda any more. At this point everybody was grown up or died out, equity-cashed-out, scattered, irrelevant. Places would probably cost ten times as much. An entire smarter kind of people would be there now. Whenever he went past, he liked the feeling he was driving past his childhood self, the unlucky version of himself, as he sped under the overpass in the solid Lexus SC – it was the Continental Edition, with the complete racing grille-&-hubcaps package plus dashboard upgrade – the sight of which would have awed him hopelessly thirty years ago, as a boy, if he’d been standing by the freeway to glimpse it from behind the chain-link guard fence, next to the old, tall Holiday Inn building they’d made into offices, beside the Chevron station that, when it arrived during the brutal eighties, blew away the old Sunoco with the excellent mechanical pull-knob candy machine, an antiquated machine even back then, whose heavy-gauge chrome reflected your own greedy little face back at you, ballooning and seeping in the shiny trim, and next door, the Jack-in-the-Box, the still-existing Jack-in-the-Box! – the doubtless grimier, but evidently immortal, unchanging, perpetual Jack-in-the-Box – whose Talking Clown icon he had actually crouched behind once, when he was in high school: he’d actually hunkered down in the ornamental white gravel behind the Clown’s pedestal, to avoid his dad cheerfully crossing the multi-lane Parkway where pedestrians don’t belong, with his galloping limp and his one-size-fits-all happiness. – He liked to go past the Terra Linda exit ramp without slowing the yellow Lexus. He liked the moment of the historical division of traffic lanes – the point where the right-hand lane first began widening to swallow all the new high-speed arrivals and departures – and on the pavement surface, the painted white dashes started blinking double-time to warn of a separation – and then the wedge inserted itself, peeling away the doomed, who would curl aside into Terra Linda and slow down, while Virgil, himself, he kept that wedge on his right-hand side and – without the slightest ill will or any hard feelings at all, like a total stranger – sped on at the limit, toward his blur of appointments. Up at the Lake Dominy dam site, the client was big and fat and juicy: a friend of his wife’s family. A bigger account than he’d ever before handled, it was so guaranteed, it made a new thought come into his mind: He would never again get off at Terra Linda.

Because who was there? Nobody anymore. “Never” is a word that, at last in life, finally applies. At a certain midpoint, you’re entitled. After the meeting today at Lake Dominy, his accounts-receivables would be permanently – or at least start to get permanently – plumper. By five figures, so he’d have a little cushion there, and might begin turning down a few of the low-budget accounts that came drifting in the door; and in general start raising his sights, biding his options. Today was – (he could announce this to himself discreetly and not jinx it) – an auspicious day in his life’s arc. Even a habitual pessimist like himself could see the math. The old Marin sky was blue all over, except for the one typical little cloud that – it was memorable from childhood – had a way of staying above Mount Tamalpais.



“Chanech galludim,”[1] declares a certain bright, eclipsed Angelic Person in Heaven this morning above Mount Tamalpais. Dawn’s yellow sky has sharpened to the usual blue. The usual – always just about this time – dove-winged fat baby drifts past, diagonally in an upper atmosphere, plucking a lute, rising up toward the matutina in higher Orders. Below on Earth on Highway 101 – yellow bead moving north – Virgil, all his ambitions intact, is headed toward I-80 and the Lake Dominy meeting.

The Angel opens the Office microwave. And removes the usual steaming apricot Danish.

And in fine solitude, before his Cadets[2] have awakened, he settles down for a simple breakfast on this his Tutelary cloud. With a flap of his robes, the patient old Angel called by the name Mischal – Guardian, Guardian Ordinary, Archangel-Emeritus in relegatio, sorrowful of countenance, benign of gaze, magnificently formed (if prospering now towards corpulence during these idle millennia) – spreads his Manifest[3] Angelic person, to seat himself before the San Francisco Chronicle’s daily weather map. His Danish pastry. His old sour yesterday’s coffee. He loves this time. At dawn things seem fresh again. And morning is the time furthest from doubt.[4] Morning is as far from doubt “as the east is far from the west.” In the Office dumbwaiter, clerical chores will have arrived – routine updates, filmcans of yesterday. None of it urgent. At the floor of the atmosphere is the whole Bay Area. Yes, and underfoot is Terra Linda itself, tract homes on curving sidestreets and cul-de-sacs, house clusters, pretty as cancer cells, all nourished by a freeway exit-ramp, Terra Linda, at its heart a huge parking lot. Virgil’s yellow dot rounds the bend escaping the sprawl.

It’s an “auspicious day” indeed. Today on the shore of Lake Dominy, he will no doubt enter a time of triumphant self-assurance. Virgil in his fourth decade has been troubled so little, the Cadets complain of a boring quality, so they even wonder what’s redeemable: college-educated and male, born in a North American suburb’s lower-middle class, then through inertia attaining to middle and maybe even upper-middle, caucasian, as an adult residing entirely within a twenty-mile radius of his birthplace. The Cadets aren’t wrong, he’s of course uninteresting, they’re just impatient, a pair of parvenus not quite done with Purgatory, wonderfully overzealous making their forays into Tribulations.

They recently tried darkening a memory of Virgil’s childhood and did a fine job of it. They went into archival film of his early years and fashioned a small humiliation they were so proud of, they asked Mischal to come around to the darkroom[5] to see the finished footage – portraying a morning from 1973 when Virgil was seven. It involved his father and the hunt for mill ends.

Mill ends, which once littered construction sites, were the discarded sawed-off wooden blocks and oblongs from 2x4s and 2x6s – or with luck, even 4×4 posts’ square logs, and 4×8 beams. Mill ends were prized forage in the Sproehnle house all during Virgil’s childhood. His father, Ed, in winter fed them through the door of the woodburning stove in the living room. Which had the distinction of being the only woodburning stove in the whole suburb. In the Sproehnle garage there was a wonderful cardboard box for mill ends.

The venerable old box was large enough to have contained, at one time, “TWELVE (12) 12-PACKS” of toilet paper rolls. It always stood empty on the hood of a defunct clothes-dryer. Its cardboard was worn to a soft chamois at the corners and the flaps. Open splits had been repaired by brittle tape. On this particular remembered day in 1973, the harvest of mill ends was going to be so abundant, his father had given him special permission to stay home from school. An entire housing development, 46 units, was going up on the old marshy ground by the freeway, only four blocks from home. It was a Monday but it seemed to be a day off for all the carpenters. And, even more propitiously, Virgil’s mother was to be gone for the morning, so the way was clear, to skip school for something more important and make many trips, on foot together, father and son on Terra Linda’s sidewalks, carrying the great soft box between them, because Virgil at seven was strong enough to hold up his end.

The Cadets, in their remembrance of the day, had brought back a fine grown-up (or truant!) chill in the October morning, a rare frost on any mill ends that hadn’t yet been struck by sun. And the inexhaustible wealth of mill ends. The many trips. The lunch he shared with his father while they sat together on a poured-cement foundation in the sunshine, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and swigs of water from the special Army-style canteen, which was suspended in a green canvas cover with heavy snap-flaps. And on that canvas fabric, the faded tattoo of a genuine, official fleur-de-lis. It was a great day. Then came the encounter with the neighborhood lady who came venturing over to inquire whether Ed was in fact the boy’s father; and what they were doing there; and whether he could “prove” that he was the boy’s father; and where they lived exactly; and what they intended to do with all those pieces of wood; and why the boy wasn’t in school and whether there was a phone number she might dial, so she could speak to someone else, like the boy’s supposed “mother” or someone in authority; and again, whether the boy, Virgil himself, could affirm that he was “the son” of this man here. And then, soon, the visit from a uniformed policeman. Who, as he escorted them to his car, set his hand on his father’s shoulder. The policeman had no right to touch his father. The manicured, large, clean hand steered his father gently by the scapula. They only mistrusted his father because his wrist curled against his rib, where it always rubbed, and because he was too polite to come out and tell people it was a genuine war injury.

Altogether, it was a well-devised shame. Which, after review, the Cadets sent up in filmcans, via dumbwaiter, to higher Libraries. Mischal is, in general, extremely pleased with these Cadets on their first tour. In general he loves all this, his time in lower Tutelaries as a Guardian. He loves these mornings, his pastry, his vantage-point. He loves (while he himself is eclipsed by a steaming soggy Danish) watching Terra Linda come slowly awake and enter its daily muddle. East of the frontage road, the business park from this height looks motionless as a transistor-circuit, though people will already be at their desks, or on their loading docks.

At the old Dump, the bulldozer’s engine is running to warm itself, the operator in the shack with his Thermos. On the lawn of Freitas Elementary, the janitor is clipping the American flag to the lanyard – to run it up the pole and then tie the lanyard off nicely on the cleat, using a special knot he learned as a Boy Scout and is proud, every morning, to know and use. Not far away, in Poolside Apartments, the young gym teacher who will never marry, nor have any love, awakes and thinks only of Quaker Oats with brown sugar. Across town, the 7-Eleven manager surprises her sleeping daughter with morning recriminations. The schoolbus driver stops at Video World to put last night’s two horror movies in the slot. At the Northgate Mall in the big regional Sears, the lovely shopgirl has arrived alone to unlock and open up: she’s in a basement toilet stall, where she’s holding back her hair with one hand and with a plunging finger she triggers her throat to empty her stomach, and then flushes, lastly depositing the daily twenty-dollar bill in the draining whirl, still crisp from the ATM. Outside, on the exterior of that same Sears building, the white eyes of the display-windows’ perfect mannequins stare straight into the blinding sun, just as if they were Angels.

Out on Freitas Parkway, on the median strip, sprinkler systems thrash and spit, then fall silent – then they begin making a mist above the turf, where right now no mortal human is present to witness. It’s an Angel’s favorite time, seeing the general wakening, seeing the map’s detectible sift and glint, and oozing glitter. Beneath the Angel’s feet, the tall chimney of the high school has begun to release vapor. And at the corner of Northgate and Las Gallinas, children stand in a loose knot waiting for a golden bus, exactly as Virgil once did (it wasn’t long ago), cooperative boy that he was, wearing the sky-blue frayed sweater he loved and depended on so hopelessly, and the ripped Adidas running-shoes he was indifferent to at the time, but which decades later became a focus of shame. O, the all-important sky-blue sweater, where is it now? That sweater is 9 feet underground, in a landfill in Contra Costa County, its yarn loops parting in currents of soil. Mischal pulls his Danish in closer, on its paper plate.

And rearranges his entire Angelic consciousness and refocuses and settles down to take possession of this fresh-created hour with his newspaper, enthroned in his favorite molded plastic chair exactly grease-smudged like the one in the little Sunoco gas station before they razed it – and he pulls up his favorite section, the Weather Page, to make the most of a quiet hour here on the little white beach, his Tutelary cloud, a small local stratocumulus in the Afterlife that was decreed offhandly some decades ago, on a dull spring morning in the seventies; decreed by Virgil Sproehnle’s mother Evelyn; decreed here rather glibly, thoughtlessly, as Virgil was leaving for school one day while she stood in her housecoat on the doormat, with a feeble almost apologetic hand-gesture heavenward, tossed up here thus, to be forever an Angelic station, back in the days when the important things went unnoticed; back when the thin edges of wedges were inserting themselves.

Lo, the newsprint, soft and ink-filthy. Lo, the weather map’s cartoon: a spiky bulge of coldfront invading Canada, rain’s tilted hyphens covering the whole Seattle area, sunshine’s medal awarded always to Arizona. And lo, the apricot Danish at his elbow, from the microwave steaming, sopping, upon the paper plate with butter stains’ translucencies. The Great Angel called Mischal in Tutelary Lieutenancy draws it all close around himself – the coffee’s sour odor, the pastry’s steam, all an atmosphere upon one facet of his Angelic person, while at his back, a certain basement chill creeps: the draft that comes up the Office’s vertical dumbwaiter shaft from far below.

Such a touch of chill doesn’t disturb an old Angel’s coziness, rather it completes it. At the end of this hour, he will slide the newspaper together, nab a last crumb of sugar icing from the plate, stretch his arms and stand up and utter “Chanech dem.”[6] Toss the plate, rinse the styrofoam cup for another use, check the dumbwaiter for filmcans of yesterday. Do whatever filing. By that point, the Cadets should be awake. Virgil Sproehnle’s few Tribulations at thirty-eight are, yes, a banal assortment: a little eczema at the eyelid, a pang of envy, a leg and hip pain sometimes from sitting too long in his ergonomic chair, the occasional insomnia, a loneliness in pomposity, the first peckings of male-pattern baldness. Nothing debilitating. Nothing even very uncomfortable. Well, an Angel’s job is to change that. There is all the time in the world.










The Coming of the Everlasting Day



Or so the Angel thinks.

What the Angel Mischal hasn’t yet seen is that a certain small green envelope has arrived this morning in the dumbwaiter from the highest Offices. It originates, actually, in certain out-of-the-way Offices never heard from. Never in all eternity.

It’s an announcement. This had to happen at last. Aeons have elapsed in forgetfulness of this finale.

The green envelope lies behind him; it’s only an arm’s reach off his shoulder. He has no idea. The letter announces and foretells the Perfection of History, the Judgment Day and End of All Things. Even a great old Angel will have envisioned such a day only in mythological terms – pigments of fresco, brimstone’s flare, torn sky, the great Bicep and Forearm, the hurling downward of the mistaken and the horrified and the broken-hearted, while the lucky conformists line up awaiting their elevation. Now, even here in Paradise, even among Angels, it will be a time of reckoning.

But an apricot Danish is preoccupying. And the great Angel’s broad flabby back is turned. As for mortals in Earth, so for an Angel in Paradise: the “future” doesn’t exist yet. This Angel hasn’t the slightest idea. On such a peaceful typical morning in Earth – the Northgate Mall parking lot in the dawn still empty of cars – a Tutelary Angel supposes that today will be a day like any other. Soon the first cars will begin to gather, and greed and envy and pride delight, and gluttony and avarice delight. For the Author that made these days is established as unimpeachable, irrefragable, transcendent. And all the days to come will be like those that went before, at least for a long, long while. So he supposes.

Thus unwitting, a great old Angel in the heavy buoyancy of his long patience and his old Archangelic, perpetual grief and constancy, settles in over his coffee and his newspaper. Virgil will have an uneventful drive to the mountain foothills this morning. Much of I-80 is visible from this cloud and there are no traffic problems between here and Lake Dominy. The Angel turns his attention fully to the momentous, the astonishing, the miraculous part of any daily newspaper: today’s Weather Page.










A Day Like Any Other



When the dam in the mountains restraining Lake Dominy began to show cracks, people in Dominy Shores actually thought it might have been sabotaged. The idea was suggested first purely as a joke over drinks at The Nineteenth Hole. Then somebody who used to be an engineer mentioned it to somebody in the Homeowners Association, who called somebody who used to be on the Cal-Fed commission, and soon certain people were taking the idea of “sabotage” half seriously.

Of course it was far-fetched. But it’s a lesson of PR: irrational beliefs spread easily on negative buzz. Especially any kind of scare on the loose. Negative buzz elevates credulity even in an affluent, college-educated segment.

And it did happen to be true, so-called “ecoterrorism” had been threatened from time to time, by the peculiar people living higher upstream in the mountains, a politicized demographic, a rather romantic demographic up there, who seemed to be trying to live in imitation of Native Americans (planting subsistence gardens and even foraging, keeping goats for milk). For years they’d wanted the dam demolished. Realistically those people up there would lack the means to attack a dam – not to mention the pure dastardliness – harmless people who, anyway, preferred addressing their grievances by blogging inconsequentially about them, contributing money to non-profits, producing an interpretive dance performance at the Community Center, passing around emails in affinity-group bubbles – all the kinds of responses market-research people call twirls. A “twirl” stays inside the demographic, it doesn’t make any ripples outside it.

Nevertheless, when certain odd, characteristic, horizontal cracks continued to show up in the dam surface (getting starts in several different places at once, which was alarming) a security guard was posted, and actual so-called “Homeland Security investigators” were brought up from Sacramento, to work alongside engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation to find the cause.

By midwinter they announced their findings: the dam had been weakened not by sabateurs but by a kind of emerald-green algae – benign slime bloom was the expression the biolgists used – which seems naturally to fasten on ordinary cement and suck calcium from it. The cement lapses into pebbles and sand. Faults delve especially along grout lines. The decay was slow but apparently unstoppable. So possibly there was nothing to do but condemn the whole dam. Geologists and engineers were dispatched upstream, to survey places higher up, where the Artemisia River’s clear gush could be sluiced aside, carried in 2.5 miles of temporary conduit – to be channeled on down to the farmers in the valley, who needed it. The State Board of Water Resources directed that the green cloud of algae must stay pent-up in Lake Dominy; all regular releases of stored water were stopped; behind the dam the organism would soon use up the nutrients in its environment and die out naturally. It mustn’t be killed by poisoning the lake with an “algicide,” because that would sterilize the whole river system disastrously. During the coming spring, biologists by observation would be able to figure some way to prevent it from reproducing. In the meantime, it might have a population cycle of about forty weeks.

However, forty weeks could be enough time to rupture a twenty-thousand-ton dam. New cracks seemed to be appearing every day.

So, to relieve pressure, the Army Corps of Engineers began the gradual release of water, a tedious process, because they had to filter it mechanically and chemically as they let it out; and a noisy process, too, because terrible (and terribly inefficient!) diesel pumps were used to move the water. These were affluent people here. They were accustomed to peace and quiet. Under the diesels’ daily roar in the neighborhood sky, while the level of Lake Dominy slowly sank, a slope of mud was exposed at the base of people’s expensive lawns. Clusters of small white spheres emerged, scattered out there on the mud. People liked to rumor that they might be the “pods” the “ecoterrorists” had used in disseminating a new breed of cement-eating algae, but they turned out to be only golf balls, hundreds of them, as the shore receded. Apparently some fellow many decades ago (the balls were of a certain vintage) had been taking practice shots off his lawn into the lake. Samples of the new green slime were scraped and collected in vials and turned over to Fish and Wildlife biologists. The water quality itself was all right. It was still crystal-clear snowmelt from the Sierra. Algae was even an indicator of ecosystem health. Still, the biologists were told to treat their analysis as urgent. People wanted to know exactly what it was and where it came from, and especially whether there would be more of it coming.

Because there were dams all over the state. If this was a kind of invasive new algae that ate cement – here in California where every river was dammed at least once, most of them at several places along their length, storing water, generating power, controlling seasonal floods – then it was urgent to prevent a more widespread bloom. Imagine California civilization without dams. In a great convulsion, the fifth largest economy in the world, California’s, would suddenly thrash out limp, if the unthinkable ever happened and all the rivers, suddenly unblocked – from the mountain-peaks’ tender, unvisited, squishy high meadows and the glacial dripping snowfields tilted in the sun, down through the white thunderous plunges among granite boulders, down to the great rivers’ advent and procession on the level sea – should run free and wild again! It would be an economic catastrophe, drowning rectangles of agribusiness from here to Mexico, depriving millions of hydroelectric light and energy, dimming the blaze of the shopping centers, throwing millions out of work, clearing the air, quieting the freeways, restoring the rule of Boredom over the land.

Meanwhile within the Dominy Shores community there was a more particular emergency, involving real-estate values. The Homeowners Association wanted a whole new dam. They didn’t want to live at the brink of an empty bowl of mud. They had bought lakefront land, described as lakefront land on their deeds of purchase. Property values were considerable. It was a mature reservoir, and an exclusive residential development, and some of the residents were powerful or at least assertive people.

Which was why a public-relations man from Aardent Communications of San Francisco, Virgil Sproehnle, stood at the mud rim of Lake Dominy on a morning in April. He had driven up from the city because the Dominy Shores Homeowners Association had hired Aardent (that is, they had hired Virgil himself, since he was Aardent, its entire staff and management) to develop a PR campaign for the construction of a new Dominy Dam. So Virgil today would begin research for a short film, provisionally titled “The Lake God Wanted All Along.” Not that, but something on those lines. Something implying the lake may have been man-made but, still, it was destined to be here. It “belonged” here. Or, keeping God out of it, “The Lake Nature Wanted All Along.”

The Lake the Mountains Wanted All Along.

The Lake that Always Belonged Here.

Something like that. It was a film that would be shown in Congressional Committee rooms in Sacramento and possibly Washington, and in neighborhood caucuses and town meetings. A re-narrated cut at twenty-eight minutes might have television syndication in small markets. He wanted it to be good. He wanted to be able to use it as a trophy for Aardent. His thin-soled cordovan Top-Siders – yes, Top-Siders, the regular slip-on loafer kind, because Virgil was fundamentally a regular guy – who, if he ever thought about it, would have supposed his particular justification lay exactly in his regularity – the Top-Siders were planted wide in the country-club turf as he looked out over the big shrinking pool. Oval concentric rings of scum. He’d made the two-hour drive this morning because he really needed to see the physical lake in person. See what visuals it offered. Stop by the Homeowners Association and get whatever slight PR they might already have. And also, not incidentally, to have a shot at naming the fee. It would be Aardent’s first big-budget campaign. He wanted to go into the thing with maximum force and cheer. This particular day felt, uniquely, fated. Exalted. Muffled. He was insulated by some kind of ringing-in-the-ears sensation. The freeway ride did it. And this lake, it was so quiet. He was under this new spell, observing himself in transparency, because his mind, all morning, had been transfixed by a glimpse of something he’d seen in a biology textbook, it was on his desk at the Aardent office, something completely irrelevant and utterly commonplace, he’d been flipping through the pages at his desk, looking for anything about algae; and he came across this page. It was only a pair of chromosomes, photographed in a microscope, isolated by superimposed circles:



XX                              XY

woman                         man



He didn’t stop the page. It snapped past, fast as a movie-frame, but the page had, in a flash, captured Virgil’s pale spirit unawares. Because what was all that extra genetic information in a female? A male’s “Y” lacks an entire leg. An entire extra spoke in the wheel. That was fundamental. Compare an X to a Y, and an extra 25% is a lot. Apparently they need it all! Everybody always knows women have an X where men have a Y but, till now, he’d never thought about the genes’ sheer amount. Along that extra branch, how much more of the intelligent diamond-dust could fit? The male by comparison is a utensil only. If human bodies are like planetary landing-modules (which is exactly what they are! planetary landing modules!), then the female is clearly the mother ship, the man more a kind of efficient ancillary scooter running around accomplishing specific remote tasks. There lay heroism. And romance. There lay chivalry. It wasn’t something invented by Romance poets in the Middle Ages, as teachers used to say in English class, it was always right there in the genes, you have to be approaching forty before you can see it all around, and he stood this morning on the strange lawn chastened, arrested, seeing himself accidentally photographed against his natural background. Woman X, Man merely Y. It sheds a whole new light. It explained the tame lawn underfoot, it even explained his Top-Siders in some way, and his excellent car. It explained the mother that presided over his childhood, enshrined behind bulletproof glass in the bank drive-up window, wearing her good Nordstrom suit, like armor, while his father was out on the streets all around Terra Linda, chatting with anybody who came along, bumming cigarettes. Woman X, Man merely Y. It explained the captured artificial lake at his feet, and it explained the traditional sweet shelter-shape of rooflines in the houses along the shore. It explained the heartache of morning air in a man. His eyes today were stinging with a huge useless feeling. Life, biologically, requires a vast waste of beauty. Early sunshine was warming up the forest and releasing resins, turpentines, airs for gnats, buoyancy for butterflies, golden dusts. It was semen of trees, of pine cones and flowering plants, everywhere flooding the air invisibly, prickling in his eyes. The barrier of tears in a man’s vision illustrates the basic, tragic unfitness of the organism in the world. At this very moment, as he well knew, his wife Isobel was at her office in the city, planning a morning’s work for her assistant, so that she herself could go back home and get the apartment ready for her secret guest. About adulterousness, the impressive and painful thing is how much advance organization it must require, how much cool-headed planning – not hot-blooded impulsiveness, not recklessness – arranging a morning free of the office, stopping for flowers, envisioning everybody’s schedules like an air-traffic controller, buying a wine and chilling it, thinking ahead about parking places, thinking about leftovers in the fridge. A little sexual unfaithfulness isn’t an accident or an impulsive mistake, it begins as an idea, a picture of oneself. By this point obviously Virgil himself, in Isobel’s life, appeared as part of a group of manageable dramatis personae. In their marriage as far as love was concerned, the genuine solid thing was always there, she continued to need him, she would always need him, and trust him, which is the important form of love. More important than the common dizziness she liked to provoke in others, and provoke in herself, too. She would depend on him forever, which is real love, it’s not some kind of skit. It’s practical, constant love – even though sometimes surely, his actual character mattered less than the timing of his exits and entrances – and today he was pretty certain, her guest would be the shy, serious, tall chiropractor with an office in Chestnut Street, named Rick – or Nick? or maybe Jack? – Sadoff. Often he couldn’t help knowing. Details would bristle up. And he knew how she would operate; it would all have started from her being such a wonderful instinctive flirt. In that way, an affair could, in fact, at least begin as a kind of accident and seem to lack premeditation. He could picture the whole thing, from start to finish. In the end, the whole secret dramatic cycle would, finally, furnish her with the pleasure of rebuke. At first, full-frontal flirting in hallways and foyers, then capricious rebuffs, sudden reversals, repentances. She seemed always to choose a man who was remote enough, and always a respectable, fundamentally ethical man. In this case, this morning, he couldn’t help but notice when she took the worn edition of The Portable Vasari down from the bookshelf and set it at the bedside. And he’d also heard the telephone message-machine say that her appointment for Monday was confirmed. Poor Sadoff, like her others, seemed a solid, good man – who of course would feel decently guilty – so Virgil would have to find another chiropractor the next time he needs one. Sadoff in his examination-room was grave and rabbi-like and gentle, black-bearded, meditating over which inch of the spine to snap. He certainly didn’t blame Sadoff.

As if “blame” were interesting. He didn’t even “blame” Isobel. He felt, while living in the midst of her original loneliness, that he was almost more like her collaborator in this – because everybody knows about human nature, and he knew, such crimes in their origins aren’t creations of individuals in vacuum, they’re more like group projects, they arise in weather-systems, in silent, incalculable agreements, between and among all parties. Everything happens in a web. And he could admit, every night in bed too tired and studious for love, preferring his bedside lamp and bedside book, he was restoring justice in the world, setting her free. Because at the foundation was his own, original crime, the erroneous foundation of the marriage: Isobel Harkness, even way back in their Berkeley days, was guaranteed to be incapable of bearing children, void in the ovaries, and he did marry her for her sterility, as much as her beauty. Which seemed the perfect, the luckiest combination, when he was young and in his innocence he’d wanted a statue small and golden and inconsequential, instead of a complete woman with all the attached mess and drama. He’d thought a life of maximum freedom, with minimum responsibility, was the ideal. And that’s what he got. It’s what he had. She was wonderful. She was truly an artist. The whole predicament just felt undiagnosable. He after all (like anybody) was liable to random lusts, but one strange thing about Isobel, in his sight, was that her beauty was turning out to be so perfect as to be unassailable, untouchable. At least to him. Out in public, together, he and she were dazzling. All he’d ever done was set her free, and with her advantages she had become a kind of celebrity in her career in San Francisco prospering in the gallery business, with the special asset of her peculiar personal shine. So he had hoarded her, that’s how it felt, and in hoarding her he’d preserved her forever young – he had somehow not spent her, but rather kept her. And so, once upon a time, it was his touch that numbed her, she was so glazed within it.

So it was understandable. Under the pressure of an immense mile-wide prosperity (as it had accumulated in their lives), she’d started naturally discovering and widening this one crevice open to her. Maybe a year would go by and she would begin on a new one, always a well-chosen man of some actual integrity and real worth making him vulnerable. And Virgil always, each night, turned to his bedtime book within his separate well of lamplight. Childlessness, mere childlessness, would have been something they could have lived with very well together, treating it too as a gift, to be used and invested. But inescapable freedom, that was hell, for Isobel. Every morning he could see her with her little leatherbound appointment calendar, devising her own celebrity.

Well, she was no doubt very skilled, very artful, she was always extremely good at everything she did. He knew her well. The ecstatic moment – as well as all the arts of the arrangements before, and the arrangements after – did make her as happy as she ever might be. They would both go on, edging around it, pretending it wasn’t there. The whole thing was an adaptation, that was a constructive view of it: an adaptation. He pocketed his hands, looking out over this lake in such serenity. It was an adaptation to a weakness of hers. Which they shared. Certain afternoons were never asked about. Glasses were reshelved from the dishwasher. The napkins in the drawer were folded. Life was a solid, stable regrowth around an old cyst. Everything is an adaptation. This canyon, as the lake drained, was adapting so fast already a bright parsley showed in the mud.

He looked out, at the job he had to do here – restore an artificial reservoir, in these days when dams were so politically controversial – and he decided he’d be able to think of this lake as the means to the purchase of a car for Isobel. A Jaguar from Bay Imports on Van Ness. Jaguar had come out with a new, more affordable line (actually for his precise market segment), which still, doubtless, will have the silvery leaping-cat hood ornament. The hood ornament is still, always, the whole point.

The fact was, however, thinking realistically about this year, he probably couldn’t afford it yet. A Jaguar was a big step. Also maybe a Jaguar was never exactly their cohort: they were too young for a Jaguar. But it would feel right, oddly, and it would confer some elegance upon – upon what? – upon a new phase in this ongoing “adaptation” of theirs – a necessary new phase – because the Dominy Dam account would make them a little bit rich, and they would both be forty. He probably was an idiot, a fool. But he didn’t know what else to do. How else to get through it.

“Getting uglier out there,” said old Sabin Hansen, the chairman of the neighborhood committee, coming down the slope of the lawn behind him, in yellow golf trousers and white patent-leather cleats, a walking cliché.

An electric golf cart, with an awning, was parked above, having arrived silently on rubber wheels. Mr. Hansen was an old friend of Isobel’s parents. When they’d first met, years ago, it was whispered in Virgil’s ear, He’s timber.

That didn’t mean much to Virgil.

He can go out tomorrow and take ten billion board feet.

“Good morning, Mr. Hansen,” he said, unpocketing his hands.










Virgil’s Success




The old man liked to affect an annoyance – his only response in greeting was to lift and drop a hand. He watched his own feet as he came downhill from his golf cart.

“We’ll keep taking pictures as it gets worse,” Virgil said, using we to create a mirage, a picture of an Aardent well-staffed with sharp employees, whereas in fact it was just him, in his stocking feet all day, him and his Rolodex, his Starbucks mug, Googling things idly out of curiosity or sometimes just torpor, dreading another morning of phone calls, magazine publicists’ fake enthusiasms, editors’ indifference to everything. He told Hansen, “I’d like to get it with film rather than videotape. Film is more expensive.”

So there was a first stab at a fee.

He had always been indebted to the old man, family friend of Isobel’s father. Not only was he bringing this fat project to Virgil. Long before, he had pulled strings to put Virgil and Isobel into some real estate. Repaying a favor between families, he had tipped them off to two acres of unimproved wilderness in Artemisia County, on the banks of the lower Artemisia. It was a bowl holding the river as it meandered, and it was like National Park land, with big trees that, in the beams of dawn, steamed fresh from the era of dinosaurs: the purchase had been arranged quietly, as if it were a scandal, and it was a scandal. Someday they would subdivide it, if they ever got a road in. Two acres might not be much, but it raised them to a different class just knowing it was there. A Sabin Hansen was a man to be studied: his business habits, his power-plays, his clever aversion of intent, his way of disguising serious transactions among jests and balderdash.

“The fairy-folk sabotaged it,” he said, of the dam, with a squint up the canyon. “They stick electrodes in bowls of swamp muck.”

Yes, and it was also rumored, within Dominy Shores, that they fornicated freely up there at the higher elevations, in their yurts and teepees and on river beaches, or at least sunbathed without clothes; that they lived off-the-grid by making energy in weird ways; that they practiced Buddhism or Wicca or Celtic tree-worship; that they had gone back to Native American agricultural methods poking wild seeds into the forest floor, and in some way put pollens together trying to create new species; in general that they were mutating up there unnaturally. For years they had been lobbying to have Dominy Dam taken down, claiming it was a barrier to the salmon. If Lake Dominy were freed, then the salmon, their totem animal, could swim up and down the entire length of the river, entering under the Golden Gate Bridge, climbing all the way to the Sierra headwaters above Donner Pass, a passage roughly paralleling Interstate 80, but in a canyon more beautifully colonized: colonized by a species millions of years older than humans, a species wiser than humans, and quieter. That was their view of things. Virgil said, “You know what we called that market segment in college? Seriously? Hobbits.”

Mr. Hansen didn’t look amused.

“Hobbits buy wine instead of whiskey. Print-matter rather than TV. Durable goods seldom.”

Whereas, in that same marketing seminar, Sabin Hansen’s segment was Eagles. Eagles buy plenty of durables and take all satellite channels. Thus, Virgil stood right now in a PR man’s most advantageous place: between two hostile demographics.

Mr. Hansen folded his arms high and hard, looking out at the algae. “They brew it in their sinks. They brew it in their bathtubs. Send it down here to eat our dams.” The exact irony of the old man was impossible to gauge. “I want you to go up there, Virgil. You have to portray those people, if you make your movie. They’re actually pro-poverty. No exaggeration. They’re against prosperity. They want patches on our clothes, leaky roofs, everybody hitchhiking. They want the Depression back. Clotheslines. They literally want clotheslines again. And these people aren’t stupid, they can see the Assembly’d never let them tear down an existing dam.” Virgil had always admired, from a safe distance, this kind of Western personality, its hard deficiencies of mind and its frontal selfishness, here instanced in the yellow-trousered giant from an old family replete with silver from the heart of Nevada and billions of board feet from the ancient forests. The pure dunderheadedness of that class: it was a kind of hallmark. He, himself, had folded his own arms in exactly Sabin Hansen’s manner. The phenomenon was phrased somewhere in one of his college textbooks: You instinctively “emulate those who hold your life chances,” as you crowd for your spot in the food-chain, even right here on the lakeside turf, edging, elbowing; and when he spoke, he heard his own voice chiming right in with Sabin Hansen’s whiny drawl: “Well, I’ll tell you about my business, Mr. Hansen. About public relations.”

“Bup! Bup! ‘Thumper,’ you and Isobel.”

(He never could bring himself to address Mr. Hansen by the name Thumper. Thumper Hansen. It was an Ivy League frat-house thing.) “…Well, in PR, there’s no ‘bad guys.’ In PR, everything’s good. Everything’s good news. In the best PR, there’s no enemies. See, I’m in the reconciliation business, not the opposition business. We’re going to join the—” (not fairy-folk, not Hobbits) “—people up there. We’ll learn to understand them. And them understand us. We’ll bring some ecologists in. And we’ll be spinning it as an ecological issue. We’ll be the ones. Because, as you say, I’m sure they’re not stupid. We could use them on our side. It means getting us on their side. It’s empathy. This is all about good communication.”

Mr. Hansen was perhaps impressed. The man, uncharacteristically, glanced at Virgil.

And Virgil knew what the old man was seeing, he was seeing his show of pluck. It was his magnet, his good luck: the orphaned glow. Coming as he did from a backward home Virgil was, effectively, always orphaned, if in some purely stagecraft way. So a cheerful deservingness preceded him, from his earliest days, winning scholarships, being recommended for privileges. This year at last his father finally did die, so maybe the orphan quality, the shiny-penny quality, was at last fully earned.

“What I do for a living is, I create harmony, and confluence,” he went on from the usual boilerplate in his mind. “I don’t argue with people, I come around and I basically point out where there really is no disagreement. Some folks here in Dominy Shores might find this process uncomfortable. Because ‘reconciliation’ and ‘understanding,’ right now, those are not what you think you want. Public relations is scary for all parties, when it’s good. This movie doesn’t need to focus on those people up there, the Hobbits, but it will be about environmentalism as if they mighta made it themselves.” He went ahead and made his incision, “We need to talk about a budget. Right now I’m off retainer, informally just because it’s you. But the people I want for the film are going to be very good. And I want to do sixteen millimeter, not video: it’s a huge class distinction. Plus there will have to be appearances by experts. Experts cost money. A successful campaign, as opposed to a good little effort that produces no results, is not something I can do on a limited budget.”

He felt like a fraud, at the end of that perfectly honest appeal. Thumper Hansen was one of those men who hoards his own eye-contact. Now he’d gone back to surveying the mud oval before them. “Goddamn bathtub ring. Of the leprechauns we gotta live downstream. We’ve got plenty of money, Virgil, just come up with your figure.”

Virgil kept his eyes on the lake. There it was: the breakthrough Aardent had needed for years. An eighteen-month account, initially. A re-cut film on digital, for wider distribution, was a sure thing, and bigger contracts would start coming around, he would get notices in the trade magazines, and one day move to a Montgomery Street suite, there’d be space for a media library, the conference table, the view, the polished granite, a suburban geisha at the reception desk, he could bag a real corporate account, not just another SuperFemme Biotics. No more rubbing and digging and chafing just to get a mention on an obscure website. You work hard and stay in the game long enough, this all comes.

Standing out here in the historical sunshine, he was still, and always, the child emissary from his mother’s dark den in Terra Linda, the shadows she moved in, in her dressing-gown, in the years before she went out and got a job, the lost years, when she refused to come out and answer the door, those were the years when Virgil’s bones were formed, in a shadowy den of drawn curtains, the footrest strewn with crossword puzzles, the murmur of soap-operas on television. He would always be sustained by that pond of darkness. In truth, in that den, what was slowly roiling was anger, the stored-up anger of an ambitious woman with a too-receding chin, a woman with no place in the world, and her unavoidable husband. He said to Sabin Hansen, speaking from within that darkness by ventriloquism here in the future: “Good. I’ll send up a contract.”

This was how the world works. They were two smart men standing on a well-kept lawn hatching their scheme, at their backs the bonfire-shiver from the whole global economy. His day’s work was done. He could drive back downhill. He’d made no other plans. This was success. Empty hours would keep opening. He ought to go to the public library, the reference section first, and start learning about green scums, ecology, dams, water politics. He couldn’t go home, not until late, not until San Francisco’s twilight had begun to arrive, when the smell of Isobel’s excellent cooking would fill the apartment, the smell of the seared wine and garlic she tended to favor, the parchment lamplight indoors, while outside, the city fell through all the depths of purple – the open appointment-book, the perfectly made-up bed, the lingering shampoo fragrance, the lingering bathroom steam damp, a remnant kiss of humidity on the mirror shrinking – in his house of constant work and forgiveness.


Meanwhile that morning, higher up in the mountains, there was for Virgil’s “XY” another, a foredoomed, “XX.” In river canyons of tall pine and cedar, one of those fairy-folk lay at the churning riverside on a boulder, alone, naked except for her wool socks and her sturdy boots, thinking about the big white rock she was stretched out on. More specifically, about the saturation of the sun’s heat through solid granite. In springtime, each day is longer and the azimuth of sunrise slips a degree further north each day, and each day this boulder must absorb a minute more of radiation than the day before. Possibly two additional minutes of sun every day, or more. She could look it up. So a boulder’s inward heat is like a clock, seasonally. If you tried charting it day by day, the constant internal temperature of a boulder would correspond to the seasonal solar azimuth in a ratio that ought to be direct. Sheila Carmel was the name of the solitary mortal with the wandering astronomical mind, who was trying, for a stolen half hour, to sunbathe in a spot where sunshine was trapped in a nook, her spine not availing to warm the boulder’s mass. Late April, the river-water was roaring foam and mint from the upper snows. Along the canyon bottom, a winter air clung. But here between rock walls, in a vertex, the first heat of summer was held and amplified, a local summer, warmed too by her nakedness and faith, yes, she considered faithfulness an element in her personality, or just stubbornness, which was a kind of substitute for faith. Maybe sometimes a substitute for brains. Mere stick-to-it-ive-ness. She shrugged and shrugged, weaving against the rock. Her bumpy backbone would never teach this boulder warmth.

A clatter of falling pebbles. Someone was coming. The sound of the water had covered his approach. She knew she was perfectly safe. Tourist hikers like to explore, but they never penetrate this far into these canyons, and you could depend on local people’s harmlessness.

But it was her stepfather, of all people, climbing down the river bank downstream, so a knee-jerk daughterliness made her pick up her clothes and shrink back in the boulders. It was oddly illicit of him, coming here. Outside his lab, Robert Newton looked crippled, his beard thinned by direct sunlight, his bald spot making a donut of hair, his sideways Frankenstein-stumble over the rocks, his blue jeans flannel-soft after a month unlaundered, faintly tea-brown at the bleached seams. He used to be a cause of constant shame for her, in airports, in museums or in university hallways, in Mexico, in haughty restaurants of the Vaucluse, because his badly pronounced French was too loud in the room where everyone was so grave about the food and he wore those same jeans!the exact same ones! – but now, as she was reaching an age of slammed-shut possibilities, she had grown loyal, fatally loyal, to just that dim blundering. He was moving downstream. He wouldn’t see or notice her. She stayed back, undressed.

He carried a refrigerated-shipping case. So he had been to the post office. He stopped, and he set down the case. Then he straightened up. Gripping his battered laptop-computer against his rib, rather like a bible, he looked downstream over the river he loved. A man with a chronic stammering problem – in Bob’s case it resembled strangulation and it pulled his head to one side when he tried to speak – had a capacity for serenity when he was alone. Times of solitude seemed, for him, more profound than ordinary people’s, as if people who found language easy never opened their eyes quite so fully. Or their ears quite so fully. She watched him kneel at the river’s edge, on the riverbank cobbles where he laid out the refrigerated-shipping case – its familiar aluminum shell, dented-and-scuffed, its old postage labels and FedEx stickers, its stencilled words THE LAND INSTITUTE, SALINA, KANSAS from the days of its original use. Why would he bring it to the river?

He popped the latches and unbuckled the webbing straps. He twisted the little wire to break the foil security seal.

She settled in to spying. Meanwhile, she ought to pull her clothes on. If she was going to get her jeans on, it would involve boot-removal.

When he lifted the lid, four glass vials lay in their foam-rubber slots. He pried one vial out, broke its paper lab stamp, and poured it into the river. He was going to empty all of them, one by one, breaking the lab stamps and pouring. He was kneeling beside a clear pool, where he dipped the vial in, then poured it out – dipped it in, then poured it out – until it was clean. For some reason, he had come straight from the post office and was dumping fresh organisms from the Reykjavik lab. Apparently they had no use to him. The gene graft had been mishandled in some way. He had come all the way to the river to throw them out, dumping them rather tenderly. He should be at the North Liberty Schoolhouse. This was the morning of the gradeschoolers’ Great Salmon Race. He ought to be at the soccer field preparing for that. The Race was his invention in the first place. It was supposed to start soon, yet here he was. He’d come all the way to the river to dispose of a ruined culture.

He was so funny, he was so blind, frowning, methodical, he was like a beetle with his inner grinding-and-polishing processes always going on. The famous Robert Newton was in fact the indoorsiest naturalist in the field. In the corridor of the genetics department in St. Louis, at the moment when Sheila and her mother had fallen in love with him, he stood with fallen library books scattered around him on the floor. Ten years later, here in the deep Sierra, he had the same way of hanging his head – on the forest floor still casting around for those spilled library books. She alone had the responsibility of devotion now. When her mother was alive, the three of them had made, it felt like, a polygamous household, where she was the younger wife, the preferred wife, because of the way Bob’s eyes lit up for her and he sat up straighter – but yet a chaste wife, lab assistant, never happier than when she was taking instructions from him in the greenhouses, sorting kernels into dishes, or outside at the test plots on her knees harvesting tiny, hopping, lavender grass-seeds into labeled Baggies, or germinating shipments from The Land Institute. Bob Newton’s attention seldom rose from his work – while her vision was forever aflutter, unable to settle for long, it kept her still purely an angel, always on Bob’s errands. It was why she herself had grown into something like a nun or, realistically, a spinster already. A dangerously contented spinster. She used to believe, once, that she was the bossiest cruelest young beauty on the Upper West Side. Now she was in danger of actually loving this, this epoch of her fading to invisibility among the calls of grosbeaks and jays and hawks, quail and thrush and flicker, her remoteness from automobiles and even from the sound of any automobiles, the same boots every day, the indestructible, unretireable Kmart brassieres, the sweat on mountain paths, the safety everywhere. She was perfectly capable of seeing that it was a form of cowardliness. Or at least unreadiness. She liked being out of competition and being tarped over by denim clothes. Which, like Bob’s, reached the laundry pile less and less frequently. She liked her contempt for the local boys totally unlike New Yorkers, boys who wrote protest songs, gurgling, reedy boys, too clogged in the mind to speak boldly, so earnest to demonstrate that they were new and good and docile, yet always fidgeting, fidgeting around her, fidgeting and creeping, they were terrified of her, hooding their eyes. If she ever yearned for the New Yorkier kind of person, with that warmth and penetration, such persons lived in the past, far away. And the work here: it was profound. It was preoccupying. It was hectic. Especially now they were short one intern. The kinds of mail and phone calls that arrived from institutions and governments: when she was little, she didn’t know how eminent he was. Nowadays, if she weren’t there, they would never get answered.

Or if she ever did leave, some grad student would have to stay full-time.

He looked so woeful, standing at the riverside watching the water, where his dumped-out organisms rotated in an eddy, like a spell he was casting, then they spun out more widely, and more slowly, and then filed down into the mainstream to be churned in the next rapids. He looked to be holding up the weight of the world. On his lopsided shoulders. If she ever did leave, he would be alone. He would sleep sitting up, in the wing-chair. He would eat cold tofu with yellow mustard. He would eat slices of bread straight from the package. When the rains came he would neglect to bring in the couch. She waited behind her boulder, while he closed the lid on the aluminum suitcase.

She was dressed now, boots and all – so she could have called out and joined him. For a while he stayed standing there, watching the Artemisia River dropping among boulders toward the Pacific, then he picked up the laptop computer that went everywhere with him – and the armored shipping case – and he started climbing back up to the path. Going to the Salmon Race. And for some reason she felt like waiting where she was. She didn’t call out. She would just let him get ahead. The whole thing felt strange.




This Virgil and this Sheila, they are mortals, and they will be as the dry grass that goeth in the oven. Yet all the while, high above them, there is a place – abode of the unfailing fountain, abode of the bluebird and the deathless, tireless butterfly, the place of the great record-book and the golden gates, the place of perpetual care. Once cast up there so easily by a hand-gesture of Evelyn Sproehnle, high up where it has been quietly evolving ever since, unthought-of, there is a place where all things are known, all things are watched over, all things understood. And it is time[7] now here this morning for a certain Angel Ordinary to face the day. Put away anything that has arrived in the dumbwaiter. Greet the Cadets. Put aside the Weather Page. From the paper plate beside him, he pinches a last sugar flake, to lay upon his angelic tongue to dissolve.[8]

What’s in the little boxy elevator this morning? On its floor are reels of Virgil’s yesterday, and beneath the filmcans are a few pages, hole-punched for a ring binder. Sorting through them he reads aloud, “Forty-six, twelve twenty-three… Forty-six, twelve thirty-one.”

Heaven, of course – 99.9% red tape. These are revised Procedures, and he aims himself at a particular long set of shelves that support many rows of binders, all their spines labeled with embossed plastic tape. His finger moves along, arriving at the volume subtitled “XLVI.1133A – XLVI.2652C(a-k).” He pulls it out, snaps open the three-ring jaws, and substitutes the updated pages.

Tosses the old pages.

Moves the filmcans to the IN box.

And then he thinks maybe he’ll go back to his newspaper. Chores are done. His Cadets haven’t appeared yet. This is an Office where everybody likes to sleep late. Things in this Office tend to be peaceful, Virgil being such a late bloomer.

Then at last he sees it. A green envelope is in the dumbwaiter. It had been lying under the new Procedures. It bears the seal of Principalities. The face is addressed in the old Cameral calligraphy:


Angels Ordinary in All Offices, Tutelary Lieutenancy, Hierarchs, Archangels Peregrini in Transit and in Camera, Angels of Occasion, Angels of Place


He has never, in all eternity, seen an envelope addressed in such a way. He opens the thing experiencing the sensation of numbness that mounts on momentous occasions.

The proclamation is the most momentous thing. This had to come finally. The time had to come, for Heaven to keep its Promises, to conclude History, according to whatsoever was laid down from the Beginning.


To Angels Ordinary, et cetera, Greetings from the Order of Principalities ex aetates:


This proclaims the End of History. For Hell has served notice to Heaven that it intends to plead for forgiveness. This suit will change all things in Heaven and Earth.


Negotiations for forgiveness have already commenced with envoys of the Damned and the Fallen. The Kingdom of Hell will be reconciled. All Heavenly Offices will perforce be combined with those of the enraptured Fallen Angels as they return from Hell and are Restored to Grace, including all creatures without exception, and in whatsoever degree of dereliction or depravity.


The first of several precursors will be the event called by the name Dissolution. Dissolution Day will take place five hundred days from this day. In the Dissolution, Celestial government will be dissolved and all Law revoked. Everywhere Love shall replace the Law.


Forgiveness and Merger preparations proceed from this day forth, ad interim, ad perpetuum. All Offices in all Hierarchies take immediate measures in personnel-development. Further instructions to follow.



The Angels of Principalities, in vocis altieri


He himself, it seems, will have no apocalyptic role.

But it’s Forgiveness, it’s not “apocalypse,” it’s not what was foretold. He, Mischal himself, will be unused. Which must be a fortunate thing. The most important first feeling – the useful feeling! – is of relief, because he will continue to have his easy humility. In fact he feels as clear as a bell, and quite lightly irresponsible, he who was once in history the very statue of responsibility, Archangel now in relegatio.

Such a thing as “universal forgiveness” – it was perhaps inevitable.

If unthinkable. – Forgiveness of the Fallen Souls was a heresy. He would have supposed it still to be a heresy. Now presumably – evidently! – all creatures must be lifted up to grace, even the “depraved” and the “derelict.” Even the undistinguished young Virgil Sproehnle they’ve been bringing along; evidently Grace will include even him, engrossed as he is, these days, in the prolonged torment of his wife and aggrandizement of himself.











You’ll Be Alive for This



So he looks down upon that Virgil. Through thin clouds, he can see the little yellow Lexus heading back to San Francisco. Traffic is beginning to clog. The man pokes at the dashboard radio’s scan button. With a thumbnail he scratches in his inner nostril.

Well, Mischal thinks of telling him, You’ll be alive for this, in this generation. The, as it’s called, end of the world.

Whether Earth will go on at all! – whether, somehow, all things will be absorbed eventually – into some bright unity? – even an Archangel has no way of imagining this. Their one little mortal Virgil Sproehnle will be a buoy for a great old Angel to cling to. Care for one mortal man will feel like a solid thing.  He’s down there methodically pressing the button of the dashboard radio, scanning for a station, because at the top of the hour he can hear how the Dow and the Nasdaq are doing. The Interstate is glutted in both directions on Earth. The Bay Bridge is looking bumper-to-bumper, the downtown ballpark today bright as a postage stamp. O, the summer season is coming soon, the season of tourists milling in the usual places, and summer’s elevated highway fatalities glittering at intersections and crossroads.

The Dow is down eight points, the Nasdaq up a fraction. The only preparation for the end of History is, of course, to do nothing extraordinary. Go on as always. At any given moment, one is already doing the thing that will reverberate infinitely. In this case, checking stock averages. Virgil Sproehnle, after his snapshot in History, will be conducted into eternity with the rest. A universal welcome is implied now. For apparently, there will be no Judgment.

It’s not a heresy then. The only thing the Kingdom of Darkness had to do was ask, merely ask.

The whole idea is disorienting and it makes an old Angel feel as if he ought to just remain seated for a while. Especially an Angel under Censure, who has needed to be hopeful.

He slips the vellum-like paper back in its envelope – and draws it deep into the folds of his robe – because in the hallway he hears the footstep of Cadet Hokhma, her soft boots.

The note’s address excluded Cadets. Cadets are not yet to know, not about this admonition, this longed-for and terrible news: it’s lodged inside the Angel Mischal’s throat like a withheld halleluja or like repressed sickness. The conclusion of all battle. Forgiveness of even the lowest, forgiveness of even the saddest. And then afterward, a bright day, a day that never ends.

Enter the Purgatorial Cadet Hokhma, one of the two elect souls under Mischal’s supervision.[9] Each morning she greets Creation incarnated in the form beauty. One day soon when she reaches Beatitude, this Cadet will say farewell forever to beauty, that last defect; but for now, in Paradise, she is electrically aware – of personal magnificence, and the infinite directions by which such love can flood from her incarnation, the very gown unable to hide adoration’s infinite possibility. For surely, she thinks, the first principle of Paradise is that, as far as she’s concerned, there will never again be a desire unmet. It’s a thing about Paradise she has always known for sure, and now depends on.

Mischal, on his weather map, makes his usual contented grumble, good-morning, as if today were a day like any other – (which it is! it is! yes!) – knitting his shoulders up higher in his comfort. The Cadet, still sleepy, answers with her absentminded sigh. She’s looking into the freezer compartment; and from within that arctic chute, her favorite breakfast tumbles to hand: the most wonderful ice cream bar in Creation. Which she, leaning, sighing, undresses from its wrapper in a tender ceremony of surprise and cunning. Just as she does every morning.

The quiet, spat sizzle of the coffee-maker.

The sound of a wrapper tearing to reveal a wonderful confection. The fall of that wrapper to the floor.

The hum of Virgil’s monitor in the corner. It’s on auto-pilot, showing a steady heart rate and blood pressure. (Virgil Sproehnle’s heartbeat is so unfailing, the distinctive blip in the scope is actually printed. On a circle of faded cardboard, under a Plexiglas disk, the regular old hiccuping line is inscribed in red ink on a blue grid.)

The rustle of newsprint paper. The slurp of coffee.

And the pleasure of a day’s responsibilities before them down in Earth; Earth; focal, central Earth.

– As for that fateful “green envelope,” it was always there, in a sense. It was never absent. Now maybe the thing (what it announces!) is going to feel more present, like a kind of fixture, but it has always been present. All of “Time” always stood forth against the background of that End.

Anyway, Hokhma, she takes a bite in complete innocence – from off the top of her creamy breakfast-on-a-stick.

And she wanders over to the edge for a look. What she’s seeing down there is Virgil in his car, visible through the haze of the Sacramento Valley. He’s wearing his nice Macy’s sweater. Clearly his errand at Lake Dominy this morning has been a success; which is partly an affluence of simply starting out with a good sweater. And in that success, today a new cloying despair will be catching up with him. He’ll end up this afternoon at the Public Library branch looking at biology textbooks, learning about ecosystems and rivers and lakes.

And always, Virgil’s library visits incline to hopelessness. The Cadets observe it regularly. He’s convinced that the reference librarian and all the circulation desk staff can see the truth: that he, who is Aardent Communications’ entire work force and CEO, is using the public library because Aardent is too frugal, too penny wise, that is, too bush-league, to have its own research library like the big established firms; and furthermore, that the librarians may even suspect that he can’t go home till dark, because his own home is sometimes off limits to him. Virgil does sense himself seeming to lurk. And linger. Around the periodicals section. At the row of internet terminals. Therefore, in order not to appear homeless, he is invariably prickly and impatient in all encounters with the librarians.

The Great Angel Mischal speaks, his voice deep in the surface kiss of his coffee, “Seen Boaz?”

He is referring to Hokhma’s fellow-Cadet.

She takes a bite. “Boaz,” she complains fondly – with a new speech impediment, rolling a chunk of ice cream in her mouth – “is probably doing his calisthenics, or his daily geometry problem. Or flossing his teeth.”

It sounds like ridicule, and it is; but she really despairs over Boaz’s austere – his truly gaunt! – pastimes in Paradise. This ice cream bar of hers is a genuine Strawberry Shortcake Bar, the two-dollar kind, which the Sproehnles could never afford. “Poor Boaz,” she says, “if he could relent and take one moment of pleasure, or a little lightness,” she tears off a bite. “It might budge him a lot further out of Purgatory.”[10]

Mischal, anyway, is apparently going to just keep on climbing the weather map. Not listening. Which is typical.

– From her sidelong vantage-point she considers their Angel, the mystery of him, a True Angel. Who likes his coffee cold and leftover and stale. And whose bliss, whose ecstasy, is the Weather Page. Who rejoices over a sprig of crabgrass in the pavement-crack outside Sears Tire and Automotive. Herself, she’s a mortal soul, born of woman, and born in sin – whereas a True Angel’s existence seems a strange, vicarious kind of existence, an existence doomed to a pure un-ambivalence. And in such purity, there’s almost something hybrid, mule-like, sterile – as if Angels were almost an order of creature alongside Demons and Devices! She searches that alabaster profile sometimes. An Angel is a being clone-like, powerful. Yet here she exists side by side with the thing daily, and converses with it easily.

She licks, from below, her melting ice-cream bar into shape. “Seriously? Boaz is probably factoring a few of his beloved quadratic equations. Actually before breakfast. Actually that’s the kind of thing he’ll do.”

Boaz: paragon of perfect virtue. By comparison she’s on a perpetual vacation. A goof-off, a truant. She’s one of those who, like the lilies, takes no care.

“You know something, Mischal? I could conceivably get wings[11] before he does.” She’s speaking sincerely, though. It’s a moral axiom, and it’s a mystery of grace, that perfect faultlessness might be, somehow, a snare and a stumbling block. Then Boaz does stride in, with an elegant swish, Mischal’s other Purgatorial Cadet – dressed today as Zorro. Because Boaz, too, in Heaven is satisfying every desire. He has slept very satisfactorily, his African skin supple with unguents, by an extremely hot bath scalded to purple, his kingly physique perfected by daily isometric exercises, wearing his Zorro eye mask and black cloak and flat-brimmed hat.

He stops at Virgil’s monitor. “Has anyone even looked at the Today Board?” he whirls to the Today Board. (Not only has he slept well, he has finished all his algebra problems, he’s had his ordeal on the Exercycle, and he’s done his exercises, and he has already excreted, perfectly.) He answers his own question: “No, of course not. Of course no one’s looked at the Today Board.”

This happy complaint, routine as it is, has no effect on the other two – the one at his Weather Page, the other with her melting ice cream, turning away with it, because it can get messy. The Today Board holds no surprises.



1) Isobel’s chiropractor

2) Dominy Dam contract

3) Traffic on I-80

4) Eyelid eczema

5) Public Library

6) San Rafael lawyer’s parcel

7) A good night’s sleep


Another morally empty day in Earth.[12] Everything on this board was petitioned long ago. Or else will have been granted routinely by Quotidian Offices. At the bottom is a list of reminders:


hair loss

shooting pains in the leg

eyelid eczema


“Honestly, he’s almost forty and the worst thing is eczema. To him, the greatest day in his life was – I’ll tell you exactly when it was: The greatest day in his life was when they refinanced at three percent. That was it. Remember that? What kind of life is that?”

He turns. “Where is the Dry Erase Marker?” Fists on his hips, in his search he’s turning, turning, avoiding the unpleasant sight of Hokhma’s ice-cream meal. “Where does the Dry-Erase Marker go?” Spreading the black Zorro cape, he stoops to check under the table, stirring aside discarded wrappers and money on the floor. “Certain people keep leaving the Dry-Erase Marker all over the place, and then when someone actually needs it—”

Surely she knows her particular manner of devouring ice cream is not just an annoying distraction, it’s the sort of bizarre display that will thwart her progress. Now is an instance. She reaches a certain point of flouting all modesty, letting a rim of cream exceed her lips. All for the purpose of discomfiting him. That’s the result she gets and it must be precisely what she intends. Then, once she’s all sticky, she’ll go have another one of her long, hot, indulgent showers.

The Dry-Erase marker is there! It’s right there on the counter with the ancient Peoples and Newsweeks and Virgil’s old mediocre report-cards. He seizes it.

And he considers today’s Petitions. The skimpiness of Virgil’s day. He found himself envious[13] yesterday of a Cadet he met on the lawns. This Cadet was assigned as Tutelary Guardian over a sadist nun in a Calcutta ghetto who tortured girls to death, concentrating on lowest-caste orphans, and who, herself, died by fire. Now that is a Tutelary assignment. This Office’s middle-class college-educated businessman is tormented by hair loss. And an itchy eyelid. And a recurring resentment of his old dead suburban parents. Those are his Tribulations. From the cupboard Boaz takes his box of oats. Shakes some into a cup. “Listen now, my friends. Listen now, I have an idea.”

At this, Hokhma refrains from her next bite, and in a show of compassionate pity for Boaz, she displays one of her smiles of enraptured high hopes.

Still, he’s always able to forge ahead, and just not look at her.

“I think Virgil should have marital trouble.”

After a tactful pause, his fellow-Cadet reminds him, “Ah. Virgil already does have some marital trouble,” using the gentlest-possible, creamiest-possible voice, “Don’t you think?”

“Mischal? Life is short. He’s thirty-eight.”

The Angel Ordinary, at last, folds his newspaper.

Sometimes for an old Angel, among these delights, it’s as if one stood in the midst of an abundant garden. He looks back and forth between his perpetually quarreling Cadets and grasps his loose gown panels, in a gesture like clutching suspenders. “So what are you suggesting?”

And in this rotation upon his chair, an ancient Being can experience a wonderful sense of turning to a new season, a colder season, autumn’s beauty, and the icy drip, whether of panic or despair. Because the man is thirty-eight indeed. And now there’s this new green envelope.

Hokhma observes, “Marital trouble. It’s subtler than bone cancer,” seeming to console Boaz gently for his idea. Bone cancer was his enthusiasm once, early on. Which is a typical enterprising idea for a zealous new Cadet – and not a mistaken idea fundamentally – but she can never pass up a chance to needle him.

Today is a new kind of day, though. If these two intend sincerely to start bringing down afflictions, an Angel Ordinary will need to guide them in their efforts. Tribulations are a Guardian’s main occupation, and this Office has inflicted almost none.

“Now listen, you Cadets. What have been Virgil’s Axioms? Do you remember our Conception Conferences?”

Hokhma, having first glanced to Boaz, sighs and sing-songs: “His mother’s life was limited by her weak chin. His father’s life was limited by his low IQ.

There’s a certain amount of eye-rolling. Both Cadets have always felt – and complain openly – that what’s at stake in Virgil’s life is too trivial.

“Listen to me, now,” he points down at the yellow Lexus. At the moment, it’s circling the block looking for a parking place near the San Francisco Public Library branch.

“Today I want you both to spend time reviewing old film. There is a bin in the darkroom under the editing table that contains most of Virgil’s childhood. I want you to begin reviewing it all, especially the ‘Edward X. Sproehnle’ reels.”

Sometimes they’re just like a pair of delinquent students. The one casts her eyes up letting them scan around. The other keeps his gaze clamped on the floor. They don’t want to delve into the past of Virgil’s father. The father – “Ed” – was in their view an absolutely ineffectual character. When he died last spring, nothing changed in Virgil’s life. His father truly left no print, not anywhere on earth, as if he’d succeeded in a life’s work of, through perfect motionlessness, evaporating.

“Virgil is dimly aware,” the Angel Ordinary announces, “that his father, for a period of his life, practiced a form of bigamy.”

“Ed? Was a bigamist?”

Both Cadets try to picture him: genial ne’er-do-well.

“Do you remember the day a social worker came to call? It was the same day the goat got loose in the house.”

Hokhma lifts up her whine, “Are you talking about that woman? In the Capri Apartments? She had tuberculosis or something. She was an old heroin addict. Why does his son have to know about that? Virgil needn’t have any inkling. That wasn’t bigamy, bigamy is two marriages. That was just a sad little…stuck situation. She had halitosis! And she had that name: ‘Pepper.’” She turns on Boaz, “Well? Just think of the world you generate around yourself when you call yourself something like a condiment.”

Maybe she doesn’t see it yet. But Boaz is beginning to. This could lead to miserable Tribulation.

The Angel Ordinary, anyway, having planted a seed, leans back. “For any more trouble with his wife, you’d have to do a proposal at Principalities. Where it might spend a long time in Probate. And Hokhma is right. Virgil’s got marital trouble.”

“An affair for him, actually. For Virgil,” Boaz says, with a flutter in his Zorro mask’s eye-slits. “To start. That was what I was thinking.”

His fellow-Cadet looks at him.

“It’s what I was thinking,” he says.

He adjusts his black eyemask.

She obviously can’t believe her ears. It’s exactly the kind of thing she might have petitioned.

“Let me just describe this, Mischal,” says Boaz. “This is entirely more psychological, what I’m thinking of. If he were unfaithful, he would begin to apply those scruples inwardly against himself. The same as against his wife.”

– It’s hard to express this. Or exactly nail the idea down. Somehow, by entering into a lie, Virgil would be estranged from his very self. He’s mostly always been quite comfortable inside himself. He’s always trusted that feeling.

Hokhma, however, jumps on. “I know the perfect girl. I’ve noticed somebody. I’ll set up the editing room. First we contact her Angels.”

“Oh. Oh naturally, she sees  the lubricious possibilities.”

Mischal’s hands float up, and his eyes close, “Let us not be hasty.”

That is the old Angel’s way of consenting. Hokhma is actually bouncing in her chair. She can’t sit still.

“There’s petitioning to be done.[14] And you have to discover whether Virgil is even rightly constituted.”

Mischal has a point, for it has often been observed, Virgil isn’t the adulterous type. As he’s presently constituted, he could probably only somehow bungle his way into adultery. Which perhaps will have to be this Office’s general approach. He would have to back into it, somehow.

“Your first job today is to start looking at the old footage. Also, you’ll have to memo the Angels of the woman you have in mind.”

“I have someone.” Hokhma keeps on literally bouncing. Which Boaz finds just embarrassing. The thing to do with her is never look in her direction. She says, “I’ve got the perfect person. I have a plan.”

“Go ahead. Start the paperwork.” Mischal drags his newspaper back to himself.

So on Earth erotic love will sink its roots’ clutch better than any cancer. Hokhma seems to have subsided, nestling in her seat, hugging herself. “Well, gee, I suppose I think I’ll have a nice long hot shower—

“But first—” She gets up, to go over and look through the trays of Office forms.

“No no no. Mischal? She’ll get it all sticky. I’ll do the paperwork. She’ll add all kinds of her – you know – enormities.”

But the great and profound Mischal is deaf again, with evident central pleasure as the waters around him settle to their usual choppiness. He has lowered himself again deep into the newsprint and the Weather Page, the small print at the bottom, his favorite part, the part where the most important, most wonderful news in the world is revealed: tonight’s phase of the moon, high-tide and low-tide, the exact time of sunset today, moonrise tonight.

For an Archangel now has been put on notice, by a green envelope. None of this is forever. At last, in the cosmos’s vast mist of galaxies and dust, mist of memory, mist of History and error and delusion, evidently someday there will be forgiveness, general forgiveness, forgiveness even for the worst. Restoration and clemency for all. Endless day and, perhaps, unstinting radiance.

Something – something unintelligible – is in that open prospect. Something that must not be thought.[15]

As for Cadet Hokhma, she’s still quite innocent of any “end of history.” As she walks out stage-right she starts unfastening her garments (slightly scaring Boaz, of course!), heading for her second shower of the morning, saying, “I’ll memo the girl’s Angels. I have the perfect girl.”

“Good.” Boaz has his bowl and he digs into his oats. “Let her be a perfect pestilence.”






Woman X Man Y




All morning Sheila Carmel had been feeling on the edge of something, sore, and when she arrived at the schoolhouse under the bleachers she found herself unwilling to enter the public space out front, where parents and teachers congregated in the sun. It was the Great Salmon Race. Children in bunches shoved and spilled. Flags were planted all over the field. Her stepfather was out there at the judges’ table preparing scent pots.

Of course she would have to go out front, but she took the long way around, the antisocial way around, behind the bleachers, to come into the sun at the judges’ table, where she presented herself to Bob and told him:

“I thought I’d go down to the Interstate this afternoon. Pick up some things.”

To her own ear, it sounded like a lie. Certainly she had no special motive, all she wanted was some underwear, coffee beans, a salad spinner, some other things, but it felt like a lie. – Because she’d seen him dumping specimens. And she wasn’t going to say anything, or even bring it up. Because dumping specimens was strange but she really didn’t need to know.

And apparently he didn’t want her to know. The workroom schedule showed no shipment of specimens. If there’d been any payments for lab work, she would have noticed. The benches and the shelves and Gro-Lites were entirely occupied with wild-rice varieties, and corn and vetch. There wasn’t room anywhere. When he’d mailed off that aluminum shipping case, he would have had to unbury it from the depths of the Annex closet – on his knees in there, all by himself, without asking her help. That was hard to picture. Just now when she was following him back from the river, she actually tarried. She actually hesitated at bends in the road until he’d disappeared around the next bend. There was never a hesitation between them before. Now there was a hesitation.

He said, “I suppose you mean you’ll take the Volvo.”

He would consent but he didn’t like it. He disapproved of all trips to the Interstate. Just last night, she’d been remarking on the old plastic salad spinner’s unwashable grime, and he’d cut her off, A little discoloration never did anybody any harm.

“I really do need a few things,” she said. This was a tired old disagreement. On his forearm he was balancing stacks of small ceramic pots. They were going to be scent markers for the Salmon Race. He said, “Hhhh-help me put these out, will you? You do the gorgonzola ch-. Cheese.”

The bleachers were filling with spectators. The school secretary was handing out blindfold-goggles to the children all in a crowd boiling and popping around her. The whole soccer field, in a grid, was flagged with pennants marking scent trails – “Grilled Onions,” “Gorgonzola Cheese,” “Lime,” “Mothballs.”

Bob handed her his spilling stack of ceramic pots. “What do you need? Something you can’t buy here at Goodwill?”

“A brassiere, for one thing.”

That might put a stop to his interrogation. He turned away to set pots out on the grass, each at the foot of its labeled pennant.

“What’s wrong with the old brassiere? I thought those were so durable.”

She wasn’t going to engage in this conversation. She stayed where she was, at the sideline.

“So you want a brassiere of the more friable version.”

“I can always go by Staci’s and get manure.”

He came back for more scent pots, but then he didn’t pick any up. He was going to stand there and lecture. “Really. Some day you should go see the big containerized-shipping ports, like Oakland and Ssss…” – San Pedro, he would be trying to say, but he gave up. “The big retailers in the malls, Sheila, they receive tons per day. Tons per minute. So people,” he swung out an arm, over all California downhill, “can throw away their perfectly good ones, of whatever.”

The fact was, they had so much money in funds, sometimes they could get just one thing that isn’t dingy. At the judges’ table he took the two remaining pots of onions, which then he carried off to set on the ground at the bases of pennants. She drifted out after him anyway.

“Someday, Sheila, I want you to see – just see the Port of San Pedro. It’s like Star Wars the rate we suck things in. You’ve got p- plenty, can’t you put a stitch in an old one? It’s something nobody sees.”

“I just want something nice sometimes,” she confessed in a bitchy plaint she hardly knew she contained. Her especial mistake was the word nice. An article of his in The Economist was titled “Nice Things,” and for years he’d complained – it was one of his unfortunate recurring hiccups, the whole topic – that the plague of Nice Things in shopping malls (his thinking about this had a slightly misogynist tang) had upset the balance of the whole biosphere and enslaved people in faraway countries and made the waters poisonous, whereas, frankly, Sheila was glad they spent their money on the lending library and the Land Trust or on her mother’s old friend’s paintings, and political contributions, and she really did genuinely like it that their furniture was broken, varnished, muddy junk. She was proud of it. She preferred that. She preferred flea markets. She ran the annual swap meet. She never meant to get trapped in this role, ‘spoiled child.’ From here on, he would fasten on the word nice.

But no, he did something different, he said, “Well, get some manure at Staci’s,” in surrender to her whole new corrupt generation. “Check the oil. Check it before you go and before you come back. I mean lift the hhh- Lift the hhhood and check it right there in the parking lot down there. The leak is fast.”

They were standing by the judges’ table. She was scraping spoonfuls of gorgonzola cheese into the last two little pots. His caving threw her off balance; he was Robert Newton; he was the prophet of “hypertrophy.” It was he who originated the famous calculation, every dollar you spend in the economy puts 1.3 pounds of carbon in the atmosphere. The specific brassiere would be part plastic, in some toxic-looking sorbet color, with a pokey irritating part. So forget it. There was nothing in Walmart. Now that she’d been granted permission, she repented. She’d never buy it. It was cancelled from possibility. She stood at the judges’ table dealing with the cheese, while he waited for her to be done.

He collected the last pots on a forearm. “I’ll put these out.”

Fine. She went to join the spectators in the bleachers, belittled by his permission, as if her little temper-tantrums governed. She could buy the salad spinner and the manure, she needed a roll of galvanized fencing, and coffee, and she could get a sack of lime, but nothing for herself.

She climbed the steep seats all the way up and sat down at the top tier, far from anybody. The fact was, she was delighted with how frugal their existence was, she was actually proud, how even trust-fund people in North Liberty ate off chipped crockery and drank from jelly-jar glasses, how used bookstores kept springing up in doomed little retail locations and then dying back, like mushroom-rings, in whose bookshelves you’d recognize your own volumes resurfacing. She’d been initiated fast, when she first arrived from New York, a barn was being dismantled on somebody’s property, the old boards withdrawn intact, and it was her assignment as newcomer, for a week, to sit in the meadow alongside the demolition, with a screwdriver and pliers and a crowbar, pulling nails and screws from the wood, dropping the straight unrusted ones into coffee cans. The New York girl, the unprincipled girl from the downtown clubs, the girl who, one morning, stood statue-still on a Manhattan midtown streetcorner, feeling thus somehow instantly invisible in that loud place (this was when she was supposed to be looking for a summer job) and told herself, face it, be realistic, you’re too young and, frankly, too rich and too great-looking right now, and too popular right now, to spend a teenage summer working in an office instead of clubbing around, this girl had sat in a California field doing manual labor where the manicure immediately died a permanent death, and she liked wielding a crowbar, and the loud creak of her own nail-pulling leverage, she liked the sopping laundry’s punishment against the corrugated washboard, hot soapy water on a cold autumn morning, she loved the acoustics of the forests, everywhere the breakfast woodstove smoke, sharp scent of poverty, like Mexico. She loved how, in downtown North Liberty, the sound of the cricket prevailed. It certainly wasn’t Broadway. In North Liberty the only entertainment was the video-rentals in the gas station. But on any morning, the river canyon and the creeks everywhere, the deep ravines all around, were filled with a competitive traffic of finches and quail and grosbeaks, and the elegant bluejay they have out here, and deer, and great birds of prey like hawks and eagles and vultures, sometimes the bear itself bumbling around in a meadow, and the friendly droppings, bear-shit jam and the twisty ropes left by coyotes, the quick vanishing signature of a lizard among treetrunks, treetrunks so huge, and so disturbingly, benignly silent.

Which, at first, felt like an emptiness. And she herself was too sharply particular a creature to fill empty space. Today, sunbathing idly and illicitly, on a Monday morning by the river, it was an idleness with a sense of being erotic, because it was an idleness unbearably healthy and useless. Now the annual Salmon Race would soon begin: then, soon, it would be over. The children would go back to class. At home, later, there would be nothing to do but clean the workbenches. Which were a mess after the wild-rice assay of yesterday. Or sit down at the computer and get a start entering data on March grass. Bob was out on the soccer field making a last check of the scent trails. The pots and their flags needed to be planted close-enough together so that the children would have a decent chance of locating the smells blindfolded.

So when he came back to the starting line with his clipboard, the children flocked. They weren’t afraid of him. All the grown-ups in town were awed or intimidated, while among kids at the schoolhouse he was just a beloved clown. He reached into a sack – to pass out color-coded beanies for the racers to wear – marked legibly with scents, Gorgonzola Cheese, Moth Balls, Bacon. As he passed them out, he could be heard cooing over them, “Here you are, my little smolts, here you are.” One of the obnoxious boys kept pestering him about something, and Bob chided him, “When you arrive, you get to spawn! What better could you want?”

All wearing their identifying caps, they let themselves be herded and pent-up behind the starting line. They all settled the goggles over their eyes to blind themselves, old aviator’s goggles and ski goggles from other years’ salmon races, Rustoleum-sprayed for opaqueness – and at the starting line they all got down on their knees, to be released, to crawl toward the finish on the turf, guided only by their assigned scent as it mixed with the others in the morning air of the soccer field. Their knees, she foresaw, would get muddy in the spring lawn.

Somebody started the music on a portable player: “Flight of the Valkyries.” They always used “Flight of the Valkyries.”

So the race was on.

They set off. On all fours blindly, they craned their necks as if that might rake in the smells they sought.

Only Robert Newton could get away with a jest about “spawning” among grade-schoolers. In the New York schools, a careless joke about reproduction would cause a lawsuit. The race was obscene-looking, their snuffling toward a spawning ground guided by their snouts, the gross business of nature always unmentionable while yet forced to the forefront, exactly like her own mammary cones of blubber and lactation ducts, which she’d been openly alluding to with her stepfather: these children faced a world where they would swell to new shapes and start groping toward each other, a world where every stamen and pistil in the woods is swollen and trembling. It’s how the body gets used. Used by some principle much bigger than itself. Only five minutes ago when she’d passed through the schoolhouse, she’d re-experienced an old loneliness from high school: She’d looked through Bob’s biology class door and glimpsed the blackboard, where, in Bob’s hand, it was written:


(x,y) = male

(x,x) = female


The thought had never crossed her mind before – or at least not quite so grievously: There are so many fewer genes in a boy. Back in Connecticut in high school, in biology lab, she’d had to try finding the little limp Xs and Ys in microscopes, and she’d never given it much particular thought, but she did remember obscurely resenting the extra twig of genes in a female; because maybe it always struck her as the locale of the “fat” chromosome, or the female “responsibility” chromosome, though now, this morning, it seemed more like the super-added “cleverness” or “restlessness” chromosome, the “overthinking” chromosome – anyway wasted here, in her own case. During the long rainy month of this winter she was developing a strange new weakness, when alone, an inability to resist contemplating herself sexually in front of the bathroom mirror, where the plain girl in the canvas shirt and boots had only to unbutton her stiff Carhartts and (with the doorlatch securely hooked) lift her shirt, to reveal the flame shape that endangers everything, the sight that can reduce even a good man to a single-mindedness. The flare of hip, the weight of breast in kerosene-light, her vision of herself dimmed everything peripheral. It was an inevitable deformation which the children on the meadow were already rehearsing for, rehearsing their little brains out, boys and girls alike. On the soccer field, they crawled on all fours, blinded by their goggles, crowding to sniff each other’s clay pots, looking for their assigned scent of home. They only had a distance of thirty yards to cover, but confusion clogged the field. “Lime” was winning. Her lead was being challenged by “Oregano,” both of them girls. Girls everywhere led the pack, with their better olfactory systems, part of that X-chromosome package. If she ever wanted to take the chance of a man’s love she would have to leave North Liberty. Between the North and Middle forks of the Artemisia, she was renowned – famed throughout the known universe – as the serious one, the New Yorker, the always-busy one, the unfriendly one, the one person in the universe who dislikes bluegrass and reggae, the lab assistant to her stepfather, himself an unapproachable star. During six years in this town, she had taken her place as one planet, among many, where Robert Newton had established himself as central. Well, it was paradise, of a sort. To step off the cloudy brink was impossible now. Cheap Walmart lingerie was, anyway, something nobody would ever have seen. Who would see it? Nobody.

“Lime” crossed the finish line first. She had followed her chain of sour smells across the anarchy of the field – testing here, testing there, crawling back to where she’d once already tested – and now she’d torn off her goggles on the finish line, to revolve in praise, and to look back at where she’d been.

But, as in all the Schoolhouse games, there was no single winner. Everybody was a winner, that’s how all the games were designed. And even little Mothballs (presently blundering on the sidelines) would find his way home, to the last Mothballs-pot at the finish line. In Utopia, every sperm gets an egg. None perish by the way. It’s a law. Clever little Bacon was actually eating each cache of his bacon as he came upon it. But he wouldn’t be disqualified; in the end he’d think of himself as a special kind of winner. One of the teachers knelt at the sidelines – to do a little helpful massaging of Mothballs’s course – and re-aim him back toward the field of competition – and indeed he got the loudest cheers from the bleachers, and celebrated himself the most, when he crawled across the line and tore off his blinding-goggles, the last little salmon to come home.

On the boom-box, someone put a stop to the flight of the Valkyries, in its most bombastic swooping section.

Bob, by hand-clapping, made the children gather around him. He quieted them down and lifted his trembling Moses hands, and he adopted his stutterer’s pre-sneeze look. In fact, he was an expert public speaker. A showman. A manipulator. The stuttering let him suspend an audience in appreciation, especially of his humor. With closed eyes, holding a piece of a word in his mouth, he seemed almost to half-smile, not releasing the word. We must all be very quiet when Doctor Bob speaks. First he told them thanks for coming, the race was a success, Science was dismissed for the day and he thanked the parents for their support. Soon the children could go to lunch but he hoped they had learned something, about how it feels, to be an animal operating within its environment. How a highly-evolved snout, deep underwater at the mouth of the Sacramento River where the freshwater enters the brine, can smell the thread that extends from the home gravels, from the highest mountains’ clear shallows, weaving through the current, and follow that thread upstream, veering to it, whenever the river forks. And how it feels to ignore your mind, and let your body do the thinking, the built-in thinking. Because for a minute there, the old snout was doing the thinking, wasn’t it. But, before he could let them go to lunch, he had one more important announcement. Beginning this week, he was assigning the long-term project. This was in addition to the regular day-to-day homework.

He wanted the parents to hear this, too, because their participation was essential and this was supposed to prepare the children for next fall’s science curriculum. The assignment was this: to devise and describe a way to turn lead into gold. That’s right, lead into gold. He was serious about this. He wanted some real ideas from the children. He himself, as teacher, wasn’t going to offer any assistance. They were on their own. Parents were not to coach the students, either. Turning lead into gold. Seriously. Any kind of answer was acceptable, so long as it was serious. No facetious answers were allowed. By the end of the semester, he expected some genuine responses to this ancient alchemists’ question, the old lead-into-gold question, a question that made his stepdaughter, high in the bleachers behind everybody, feel simply tired and futile, a kind of common, passing sadness, not despair, can touch somebody in even her youth with her whole life ahead of her.









The Lead-into-Gold Question





Boaz all the while has been keeping a sharp eye on this debacle, leaning over the little cottony shore, holding a new Sheila Carmel filmcan he’d ordered, fresh from the dumbwaiter. Hokhma isn’t in the Office, she’s of course lollygagging somewhere, in her nebulous way–  but he has raised his voice twice now, to summon her in the most peremptory tones possible. Wherever she is, surely she can hear him. She’s just pretending not to.

No longer the Zorro costume. He does love his many uniforms and now it’s a sort of hospital-looking suit: a blue papery collarless shirt, blue papery pants with a stretch waistband, on his head a paper shower-cap. On his feet, too, are blue shower-caps to walk in. Before encountering Hokhma, he gets out a sterile paper mask and starts figuring out how to put it on.

Hokhma’s voice comes from offstage, “Boaz? Are you talking to me?”

It’s clear she’s going to feign innocence.

The paper mask has two stretchy loops. So it’s a little confusing. One goes around behind the neck. The other higher on the skull.

He raises his voice again, to ask that she come into the Office, but she’s already here. Having been in the shower, she’s wearing a bathrobe, pigeon-toed in her slippers. “I merely memoed her Angels. They petition things. I didn’t petition anything.”

He considers his fellow-Cadet, her insolence so fresh, her head towel-turbaned, her bathrobe a deep terry cloth. “Ooh, Boaz, have I been a bad girl?” her eyelids sink, her gaze mellows. So she’s going to make a big joke out of everything and just mock him.

He brandishes the filmcan. “This person,” – (when he speaks, the paper mask blows and pops) – “this exceptional young person Sheila Carmel is having prurient thoughts, thanks to you, now.”

“Oh, you know what I love, though?” she holds up her hands and makes the fingers bristle, stickily. “I love that old saying about if you want to make an omelet? Ya hafta break some eggs? It’s picturesque,” she starts letting her eye wander and shine.

“The young woman” – he taps the filmcan – “has talent as a scientist. She plans to go to college. Do you know anything about her? She’s brilliant. The only reason she didn’t start college is that she needed to take care of her mother. Her mother was an invalid for a long time before her death. Sheila Carmel has imagination. She has deductive ability. All this is unworthy of her.”

“Y’ever break an egg, Boaz?”

“There’s potential in this girl, which the intoxications of sensuality will, at best, defer. And at worst probably stunt permanently.”

“Gets all over?” Lifting fingers. “Slippery all over?”

He can see. The damage has been done. Now she thinks she’s having a little fun with him at his expense. Then she beholds his new surgical-theater attire, and she cries, “Oh, but look at you!”

All the virtues – true benevolence, perfect courtesy, sincerity – they are hopeless against merriment.

But she pouts freshly and she adopts a pitying kind of face, “Boaz, God made everything. God didn’t just make some things and not others. God made…” by a sneaky toss, she alludes, unmistakably, to all imagination’s indecencies, “…everything.”

He hardly knows where to begin with her and he girds himself, to start being patient, to call on his strength. “All right then, what kind of young woman is going to be a love object for Virgil? At what level will a man’s interest focus? Here is this young woman—”

“Boaz, realistically? Do you suppose anything at all is going to transpire without any causes? Without certain things? And just happen? Her Angels,” she points off in the general direction of Sheila Carmel’s cloud somewhere, “her Angels are eager to collaborate. And realistically, Boaz, in matters of love, as you may not remember, human beings, including women, are complete human beings—”

“Just tell me then, Hokhma. Let’s just ask this. This woman – with Virgil, at his age and his stage of life, what exactly will be the attraction for him? Just tell me that. What kind of man will Virgil be, in thinking he ‘loves’ some new person so he can throw everything over? What exactly is that love? Will you just define for me this ‘beautiful’ ‘sacred’ impulse, this variety of ‘love’ that entitles him to start telling lies and betraying his marriage? You see, if it’s going to be for the sake of some kind of random nympho…?”

“She’s not our project, she’s her Angels’. Who knows, they could have a wasting disease they’re planning. They’re a good competent old Office. They could be petitioning some kind of freak, falling-in-the-river accident, who knows? Maybe bone cancer! How about that?”

This is pointless. He can see he’s going to have to settle (once again) for the laurel-wreath of defeat that so often crowns the righteous. Now their Virgil – who already has a spouse of certain unstable moral foundation – will meet up with a young woman of, perhaps, similar sensual tendencies. Boaz, though not ceding anything, does somewhat sag away in the direction of the vertical files, and the cloud’s edge.

His belief is, if the time comes that mortals are to betray and maim each other, and betray and maim themselves, let those agonies be met by noble and exquisite beings, not by beings as Hokhma imagines them, little organisms of only a few moving parts. In any case, they’re going to be interrupted – because here comes Mischal.

And they won’t be able to ask him about this, because he’ll be in his blissful, mid-morning, sentimental Instant Breakfast phase.

From stage right, houseslippers a-shuffle.

The usual envelope is carried before him in his fingers’ pinch, Carnation Instant Breakfast Classic French Vanilla. Tucked under his arm is the typical kind of periodical he favors, an out-of-date laundromat-type magazine, by many readings worn soft and flaky. There won’t be any greeting – but his arriving does end the discussion. Opening the refrigerator, taking out a milk bottle, the great Angel glances, dimly to survey the tableau – the two of them making their progress in Purgatory – then turns back to his Instant Breakfast.

Blup blup blup. Milk throbs from the bottle in Paradise.

“At it again, you two?”

He is fond of their being, as he says, at it.

And then he is gone, offstage again with his glass of sweetened beige milk. Tink tink tink says the spoon as it stirs, going away down the corridor where bright mists seethe over the marble floor. His voice comes back, “I’ll be napping. Do not disturb, please.”

However, all this time, nobody noticed the pulley-rope moving, so it’s a surprise. It’s a surprise for a dumbwaiter to arrive at all, unasked-for, at this hour of the day. Last night’s delivery has already come down and been sorted. And this filmcan arrived routinely on request.

On the elevator’s floor lies an envelope, inscribed with Mischal’s name and full hierarchic designation. It’s a curious envelope of heavy green paper.

Boaz leans in. But he doesn’t touch it. The wax seal seems to bear the imprimatur of All Host in Glory.

“See the seal?” He finds himself almost whispering.

She can see it as well as he can.

Neither of them wants to pick it up.

She says, “It must come from from Thrones or Dominions.”

(Or higher. Obviously higher.)

As Tutelary Cadets, they’re still undergoing Purgatory, technically.

Mischal just now commanded them clearly, he doesn’t want to be disturbed.

She looks at Boaz.

“We shouldn’t,” he warns her.

Hokhma reaches and snatches up the green square. “He’s napping.”

He can go along if it’s her initiative. “And,” he puts in, “on the assumption it’s Office business…”

The wax is stamped pro forma, but the paper flap is only tucked. On its face is written, in the calligraphic hand of an Amanuensis, Good Mischal Angel Emeritus of the Sword and the Scales in Tutelary Lieutenancy.

He reminds her, just for the record, “We shouldn’t be doing this. I really don’t condone this.”

She’s extremely interested in what she’s reading.

“What does it say?”

She reads further, then she says, “Oh.”

She lifts her eyes and looks at him.

She goes back to the top and she starts reading aloud: “‘Salutations to the Good Angel Mischal, from the Highest Empyrean—’” This makes her send another glance to Boaz, before going on:

“‘Mischal, We shall now require certain service of you entailing your elevation again. You are…,’ et cetera, et cetera. ‘…Moreover, your attendance in the matter of Apocatastasis has been specifically requested by the attorneys of the Hell. Heaven now must enter into Merger negotiations with the Nether Regions of the Damned.’”

She’s acting more alarmed than he would have thought to be.

Having paused, and having stared at the page, she starts up again at the point where she left off.

“‘In Lucifer’s suit for forgiveness,’” – she looks up again, then goes back, “‘In Lucifer’s suit for forgiveness, you will be required now to serve as interpreter and Envoy to the realms of the Fallen.’”

“Well, they can’t do that.”

“‘This responsibility is to be discharged along with your temporal obligations as Tutelary Mentor. Your service in this capacity entails a special reprieve from Sanction of Quietus in relegatio in Lower Orders.’”

The two Cadets (whose eyes seldom seek each other out) lock in a stare like brother and sister now.

Boaz says it again, because this is something he knows for sure, “They can’t do that.” Everybody knows they can’t do that.

It’s a matter of very old theology. They don’t even want forgiveness down there, it’s a law, they’re unrepentant.[16]

“I suppose this is good news on the whole, of course.”

“Put it back like it was.”

She’s glaring at various parts of it. “What is this Sanction of Quietus?”

Boaz has started pacing. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything,” he snaps, and he goes on pacing.

She’s right, it’s probably good news of course, on the whole; but still, apparently, the undeserving now will stroll among them. Therefore it matters not, whatever awful thing they did. Or anything anybody ever did: it matters not. He stops pacing and points at the letter, “That is a famous heresy.”

“We have Virgil. We’re right in the middle of him.”

Hokhma’s thinking has gone further than his. It’s true, abolishing Hell and “forgiving everyone” might, somehow, put a stop to their work here on this cloud.

If you take the literal meaning of the word “hell,” and if you put it together with the word “forgiveness,” it implies unthinkable changes.

For example, will they all arrive here?

Look how fluffy are the clouds in Paradise, to be put under the tread of old enfilthed and depraved creatures. Creatures who meant what they did. Who loved what they did. And who have always made out the doctrine of “salvation” to be some kind of big phony, rigged, unjust put-up job. Maybe a few of them down there did make an honest mistake: Fine, let some of them be forgiven perhaps. But there are creatures who never did want “forgiveness” or “reconciliation,” and always announced as much – eloquently! persuasively! History won’t make sense without them.

“They can’t just come out and get forgiveness. It’s an old heresy to even say so.”

Hokhma has gone to the edge to look down. “We were just on the brink of making him suffer.”

Down below, Virgil can be seen climbing the stairs toward his San Francisco condominium, his car parked in their one allotted carport slot. Which he gets. Isobel’s old minivan has to park on the street because it’s already got plenty of urban dents and scrapes. The truth about buying a Jaguar is, he knows, if he were really serious about getting a car like that for Isobel, he would have to give up his off-street parking to make a place for the Jaguar, and then the Lexus’s yellow finish would be at risk, and it’s a converitible. Vandals and thieves love to slash a canvas soft-top if they come upon one, parked all night outside. A Jaguar might be something he shouldn’t hurry into.

“It’s true, Boaz,” says Hokhma. “We were just getting started on him.”









Just Getting Started on Virgil






The so-called End of the World is of course inevitable but it’s really always the most trifling consideration. A mortal man’s actual trial, that night in Earth, was to arrive and stand on his own doormat and hold his house key. As for the End of the World, it’s only an unvisited, never-seen old ceiling illustration somewhere, a small, painted oval vignette (cerulean sky-blue, tufts of dirty cottony cloud, an amber bicep, thigh, toga, churned in a miniature tumult), framed inside some ceiling coffer or some spandrel, far up in a dome never visited, in any case way too high for awareness.

For at the end of this day, while on a cloud a pair of purely metaphysical beings may have been quarreling and fretting about eschatology, the actual Virgil, now at the threshold of his marriage again, had been climbing the stairs to face the job of hoisting up his little tarnished brassy house key, the booby-prize awarded to all fidelity, as he stood on his own doormat – only then, in an instant of espionage when the door swung open, to decide the chiropractor had never arrived.

She’d been stood up. There’d been no illicit love here today. Nor even any guest. How was it – in a glance – so obvious? Things just felt unvisited, with a kind of pallor of being unvisited. From the vantage of his doorway snapshot, everything lay where it always lay. Couch-pillows and coasters and The New Yorker. Then putting his coat in the hall closet, he unavoidably got a clear shot through doorways, to the bedroom and the bedside table – and he could see: the Portable Vasari hardcover hadn’t been moved. It lay as she’d left it that morning, propped haphazard against the clock radio, in a way you’d never recreate by accident. So it hadn’t been used.

Maybe the chiropractor’s presence in their lives was coming to an end.

If so, it was a somewhat premature end. They didn’t seem to have have been meeting long. So something had probably gone wrong. Tonight at dinner in candlelight she would be preoccupied, she would be remote, a deep inward stitch implied by the deeper dimple at her mouth.

But no. From the kitchen Isobel came flying with a happy cry – “Virgil!” – he couldn’t help rising to; and she inserted herself between him and the row of manly shoulders in the coat closet. In her hand was a wire whisk pasted with acorn squash’s gold threads. She got both her arms around him, to attach one of those prying kisses asking for more tenderness than he felt like giving out right now, cold as he was, from the bustle outside, and still clamped-together by the aggression of late-rush-hour traffic. He even shortened his mouth: the urchin of Isobel Harkness’s kiss had no sensitivity to any desire but its own, to open him up, and she’d already swept him into her drama; everything about her was always so contagious, so that already he was some kind of fake, here on his own threshold, an actor, folded and tucked in a second layer, it was the cramp of hypocrisy, in his own home, or it was the cramp of mercy. Tonight (he could suddenly predict this, with certainty) it would be required of him in their bed to show an enthusiasm that would suffice, suffice, as care of her passion.

He could see the logic of her feelings: Having abstained from an illegal love today, she felt somehow pledged in her marriage again. It was always persuasive, her love, it was always skilled, when she defined by embraces the shape of her own personal incubus conjuring Virgil more-or-less. Sometimes, as when he glimpsed her across the room at a party looking flirtatious, he could see she was only being good, like anyone, she was only being excellent, being wonderful, doing her best, and succeeding, too – having arrived in Virgil’s San Francisco from a Santa Barbara childhood in her parents’ cold, treasure-laden houses. Survivor of those many houses, she had an amazing personal charm, it chimed out whenever she tilted her head a certain way, or sharpened her gaze a certain way, commanding admiration in any room. He, he alone, knew her to be too sinewy from effort, too automatic in wantonness, the only child of divorced parents, who never quite noticed the little girl in their midst, from her earliest girlhood vying to stretch up into their notice, because even now as an adult she was still just barely hanging on by her fingernails, hanging on by excelling, by being perfect, keen to take power – always to take power by sketching a fixed outline summarizing each one who entered her life. Never did people spread outside her sketch. Not even her husband. Himself. Now, in her mind, it was time for a playful lovingness with a husband. Certainly her physical form, echoed in the hall closet’s full-length mirror in stirruped ski-pants, will always be an inspiration to lust, a physical form made ideal by many stomach curls, and aerobic kicks and punches, so that her waist and hip preserved an aching curve exacting the common unhappiness wherever she went. Tonight the inevitable moment would arrive after dinner and wine, in bed, when he would have to exit his body, to cover his adulteress and, as the singing began, astrally project himself high elsewhere to administer the causes of pleasure. In that limelight of hers he might be present in action, but with an opacity of the eye, at that moment when her loneliness was complete. His own higher loneliness felt like guardianship. Like care. He always knew, he could always be terribly mistaken, going on this way. But one goes on some way.

She said at the end of a kiss, “Mmm,” in a severing head-tilt, with a connoisseur’s bent grin. The scepter of acorn-squash paste reappeared. “I’m buying jade at Bonham’s. I went there this afternoon on the spur of the moment, because they were doing a Chinese auction. I hope it’s all right. It’s a good investment.”

“O, everything’s a good investment. You can’t go wrong.” So spoke a man who today at Dominy Shores had landed Sabin Hansen like a big whopping fish.

He pictured an auction at Bonham’s, on the spur of the moment. He was getting a picture of her afternoon. First she was stood up by the chiropractor, then she went to a Bonham’s auction because living well is the best revenge.

He knew he’d sounded distant and even wrongly sarcastic, so he added, “And we’re rich now. I’ll get a big commission on Sabin Hansen’s dam. They’re a deep pocket. Spend it on jade.”

“I love deep pockets,” she jested, smile averted, while her hand went serpent-quick to the cloth slot at his hip. Well, later tonight in bed, at the point when she tips away, he would revert to the feeling he always hung up on, at that pinnacle: Isobel was a creature who was quickly brimful, whose heart had a certain size: a certain capacity. But whose heart was exactly filled – ! – by this love, this life, these plenishments, these good, excellent dinners, Chinese jade. And it was his station and privilege – by his many standings-aside and by touches at her waist – to usher her always. She, for her part, would have the lifelong burden of her parents’ divorce – or rather the burden of her parents’ perfect selfishness, a selfishness kept perfectly intact by that divorce. She was the divorce’s result, the perfect girl, who then was condemned to stay perfect. And keep providing fresh proof of her perfection, every day. The wire whisk came poking around at Virgil’s mouth, all stuck with acorn squash’s linty paste. “Taste. I’m smushing this in the Cuisinart with parsnips and butter. It’s a bed for the – sorry – ” (she rolled her eyes) “—rattlesnake.” Yes, rattlesnake was something she’d read about.

“Rattlesnake,” he feigned dismay but languidly. The gold paste crossed his lips, flavorless, and Isobel went back to the kitchen, back to the eternal murmur of NPR in there, leaving him cold. So then, next, there was the day’s mail on the table.

“It’s Mexican rattlesnake. The whole ingredients probably cost fifty dollars. Chilean squash, Szechuan ginger, Thai chili paste. Eventually I want to try to put us on a regular diet of endangered species. Endangered species exclusively from underdeveloped nations. Are rattlesnakes endangered? Probably not. Oh, well.” She stabbed her whisk happily around in the squash bowl. “At least this one particular snake was endangered.”

The chiropractor hadn’t shown and this was the bounce-back.

The quiet news on the kitchen radio was that there was no cure for a dust-borne fungus that colonized the lungs of migrant farm workers. Then the food processor whirred. She shouted over the noise, “Now Virgil. Something interesting came today in the mail. I want you to brace yourself, and look at what’s on the table there. The big manila one. It’s from a lawyer’s office.”

Lawyers. This would be the probate on his father’s estate. Non-existent estate. In her tone he’d caught a kindliness, or tactfulness. Everything was pathetic having to do with his family.

So when, at that moment, the phone started ringing in the living room, it provided a reason to ignore the envelope. Maybe he could ignore the envelope for the rest of the evening.

He picked up the ringing thing.

“Hi, Virgil, it’s Zoe. Is Isobel there? We have a buyer for the Modigliani gouache.”

Zoe was the rich art-school girl who worked for Isobel at the gallery, breezy, tough, undersized, with icy blue eyes, a husky voice. Her small body generated so much nervous, man-hating, clear energy, brisk efficiency was her guiding genius.

“Isobel?” he called. “Zoe found somebody to buy a Modigliani.”

On a dishtowel she rubbed her hands. “Let me take it in my den. I’ve got information for her.”

He handed off the live phone and wandered toward the mail. By Zoe’s bossy tone, it was probably a valuable piece of art. He almost wished for a respite from the clog of good fortune, the log-jam, of wealth within the doorways in this small but, admit it, opulent apartment in the Marina, its two extra, unused bedrooms, where cardboard fileboxes accumulated on the hardwood floors with their pair of never-used bicycles, and unsold paintings leaned face-to-the-wall. He heard Isobel around the corner of the door, “Virgil informs me that the Mo-dig-liani has sold.”

It was a jest, spoken in low tones.

Well, so he mispronounced it. Mo-“dig”-liani. So what? On Zoe’s nimble tongue, and on Isobel’s (Modill-yani? Modeeng-lyani?), the “g” seemed to vanish in an Italianate volute, or to ring slightly, whereas Virgil’s hard “G” is straight from Terra Linda, straight from that Sproehnle kitchen, its yellow Formica of 1970, where macaroni was dinner. And Isobel liked to take the trowel-point of that “G” and poke it against Virgil’s flesh. She must know he was within hearing. He arrived at the dining room table and saw he was right: a flat box had come from the San Rafael lawyers who had been letting probate drag along. It would be junk from his dad’s records or storage.

Indifference was something that got its strength from, honestly, disgust. He might, from now on, literally throw away every communication from the lawyer about his father’s worldly estate, and his life would go on smoothly. He could seriously do that. This needn’t be merely an idle thought. He could seriously ignore everything that came. Trash it without opening it.

A manila envelope was on the table. It, too, was from lawyers – but from a different set of lawyers. It was the envelope Isobel meant.

He sat down with it at the dining table. That he and Isobel had a “troubled marriage” was basic. Because all marriages are troubled. People who divorce never grow. Right? Because a marriage is an institution built on self-esteem, rather than esteem for the beautiful “other,” that mirage. And so a pair saves not “each other,” but each save himself. Is that not how things work? This – this right here and now – is the best labor and best satisfaction and it doesn’t get any better than this. This is faith.

Meanwhile the envelope was arresting. It came from faraway New Orleans, from Elifas Buildette Sofer, Attorneys at Law. Inside was only a legal document, no cover letter. The document was titled:




It began with “Whereas” and continued for twenty pages all congested with the sort of legal talk that Virgil, in his own career, had been exempt from ever having to look at. It involved someone named “Elwin A. Harkness,” who must be a relative of Isobel, in a town called Hamlin Parish, in Louisiana, and it cited codicils and franchises and deeds, and Virgil’s eye landed on the expression for the purposes of operating a free-floating riverboat gambling establishment.

“Isobel. Who are these people?”

She was still on the phone, standing with the cordless in her den doorway, her stance and her voice always relaxed and lively with Zoe, the two women’s tongues’ sharing that talent for that “G,” kindling their friendship. He flipped through the letter. There were several pages. Something, evidently, had been bequeathed to Isobel.

She hung up. And she came in the room. “We’ve been trying to sell that gouache for months. It’s a minor picture and everybody knew it.”

“So it’s not a big commission?”

“Zoe gets the commission.”

“What is this?” he said. He slid the pages.

“That,” she said, “is from Louisiana! I called them as soon as it came.”

Therefore, she was home when the mail arrived. Midmorning.

Still, the chiropractor, he’d probably be back.

She said, “There was a cover letter that explains it—” She poked in to look for a letter, but it wasn’t there and she began with pleasure, “Okay, the Mississippi River in Louisiana captured a new oxbow. Like one of those big whompy curves where a river curves back around. They call it capturing when a river erodes and eats through the bank and bursts into a new place to go. It’s called capturing, isn’t that nice? I understand the Mississippi doesn’t stay put. It always breaks out into little side-rivers and makes new islands. When a river leaves behind a dried-up old part, you know what it’s called? An ‘abandoned meander’!”

– All this mist seemed to promise to grow more diffuse. And Virgil was pleased, mistily, that today something unimaginable had entered this house, out-of-the-blue, caused by nothing within his own circle of life. “What did the Mississippi…capture?” he inquired, being obtuse about this, enjoying this bright fog and wishing to prolong it. Today he had stood in new Sierra canyons and breathed the air, and he felt washed, and now only half-present here, and strangely adulterous himself.

“I guess it does this all the time. The Mississippi captured a low spot on Uncle El’s property. Remember my Uncle El? He finally got what he’s been sitting there waiting for. Now instead of his old swamp, he owns waterfront property? Like the river moved to him? And right away he sold out to, like, the Bally Corporation? It’s incredibly valuable because he’s got the last legal remaining place for a long ways. So they’ll float a casino. Casinos are especially good if they’re floating, because the laws don’t apply out there on the water. And I’m going to own one-sixth interest in this thing, because I’m one of the heirs. Do you suppose one-sixth is a lot?”

The South was different. For a Louisiana law firm even the stationery was silkier and finer and more Mephistophelean. “Who knows,” said Virgil. “I guess you’ll be rich if it’s a big prosperous casino.”

She went back to the kitchen. The kitchen was where National Public Radio ruled. Somewhere, far away on NPR, there was famine, genocide, lynchings, murders, all framed by mellow segue-music. Here in the Marina District, there were none of those things.

Isobel said across the distance, “Did you know that? The Mississippi is always moving sideways. Gradually. It throws out loops. It’s like it’s writhing like how snakes travel sideways – and it’s going to eat its way east. I guess all the way to the Atlantic one day?” she finished, again curling the sentence into a question, adding the head-tilt that can change a man’s fate, making the tips of her blonde hair touch her shoulder. Over her Cuisinart she brought a finger to her mouth to taste something.

Virgil said, “One-sixth. What will you get? Dividend checks?”

She shrugged and said softly, “Yikes.” Then with her lightness, she went across to the opposite counter to whack her squash paste around in a bowl: she was repressing the potential importance of this news, he could see it in her face, she invariably suppressed celebration, she was such a banker in her heart, slipping all good luck quietly away into storage, such a prudent girl, such a scared, careful Santa Barbara girl. Maybe he loved her whenever he saw how deeply lonely she was. While she measured some exotic oil into her bowl, her eye was lit steady as a candle.

His own heartache would always be that her loneliness was so built-in, so central, so inoperable. The document in his lap was an “Elifas Buildette Sofer Client Profile,” with many blank spaces, unchecked boxes, like income level, educational attainment. “Why do they need to know all this?” he said. “Do lawyers have a right to know all this?”

“I have to fax them that. It’s their client profile. I got them in touch with Kennen-Jungbergh-Schiff.”

“You checked ‘Christian’! Isobel! Why is religion something your lawyer needs to know about? And why didn’t you check ‘Other’?”

Isobel’s one-shoulder shrug meant: who knows, who cares, maybe religious affiliation can be relevant sometimes.

“They’re nice, though, actually. I talked with one of the partners in New Orleans, and it’s just a standard form. I didn’t check ‘Other’ because then there’s the blank space where you have to say what. Atheist, whatever. So I could have written in ‘agnostic’ or whatever, but really. Who cares? You know, ‘check-the-box Christian’ doesn’t mean anything. It just means you’re nothing. It just means blah-blah-blah.”

“It doesn’t mean blah-blah-blah. It means you go to church.” …Well, no, it didn’t, necessarily. “Anyway it means you believe in it.”

Her shoulder again lifted while she went on stirring. It was a cultural advantage of living in California and the West, that you could more easily be nothing, while back East it seemed – and the closer you got to Europe and the Old Continent – it seemed to matter more, and people thought they had to be something. Out here, it was fine, most people were nothing, just pagans, his own family and everybody, from grade school on up. “Isobel,” he went on – now he was needling her, unnecessarily – “If you say you’re Christian, it means you killed god and now you have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. That’s what it means.” He was being funny but the cannibalism at the end was a sick surprise. People obviously don’t consciously think about what’s going in their mouths. His own mother, with her bland new face, after she got her nice jaw from cosmetic surgery, she started going to some kind of church, as a measure of her dropping back to the lowest class, her origins – where surely they did engage in some form of pretend eating at the altar. She’d once said so, in fact. It was diced Wonder Bread and Welch’s Grape Juice. After his father left, she made her first new friends among those churchy people with their their just-bathed look, and their watsy-patsy language habits from having missed out on college but wanting to be genteel. He remembered the very moment he realized his mother was – (the concept would probably be) – “insane.” The light of a new – a phony – serene self-assurance was in her eye: he’d lost her: it was a Saturday morning, he was leaving the house to take the Advanced Placement exams, and she told him she had “prayed” that he would do well on the exams – and she flipped one hand up, like a magician-releasing-a-dove gesture, toward the sky. Actually toward the ceiling of sprayed-on cottage cheese. That sprayed-on ceiling ran everywhere in that house. He was headed out the front door carrying four sharpened #2 pencils to take the AP exam. And when she actually said that, it was his first knowledge that she had shrunken, she was older, she was sinking inward, people don’t stay young and strong forever. And she’d been strong up to that point all her life – getting through marriage to Ed Sproehnle, then learning a new set of clerical and administrative skills at the bank. And her surgeries.

Isobel said, speaking with her head inside the fridge looking for something, “Religion is so dissolved it doesn’t mean anything, Christian just means ‘regular.’ Nowadays that’s all. It means ‘I’m whatever.’” At the counter, she started tearing open a white butcher-paper parcel, the rattlesnake. “It’s totally diluted now everywhere, and everybody kind of is, in a way. Because everybody has the Do-Unto-Others thing. And it’s only a paperwork form. So whatever.”

He started opening the other package, the one from the probate lawyer in Marin. Its contents looked too bulky to go in the kitchen trashcan. He would have to make a trip down to the dumpster.

“I’m serious, here’s what I want to do,” he said, impulsively, because this was something he’d actually pictured, though now he was coming out and saying it out loud, just to be funny, just to lighten up. “Let’s sell this place. Now apparently with our casino we’ll be rich coupon clippers! Right? And get out of San Francisco. Just you and me.” He was being inappropriately intense. He didn’t even mean it. The “casino” was probably nothing, selling the apartment would be stupid, and he was only teasing – she’d never leave San Francisco – but he did sometimes think specifically, pleasurably, about this: “And buy one of those trailers that holds eight canoes. Where you rent them out to people. I want to sit with you by the side of a lagoon. Find a lake somewhere. Idaho. Have two lawn chairs. Rent canoes to tourists. Or Canada or someplace.”

Canada was the last, perfect detail to sour it, and she said, “What’s in Canada?”










Everything’s a Good Investment, You Can’t Go Wrong





“What’s in Canada! Everything. We’d have Hawaiian shirts. We’d have lawn chairs and beer. We’d still be listening to NPR. They’ve got NPR in Canada, just like us. They’ve got CBC! Eight canoes. Hang ‘em upside-down on a rack. Everything is in Canada.”

“No, sweetheart, ‘everything’ is here in San Francisco.”

Suddenly this was starting to feel like it mattered. So screw it, forget it. He went back to ripping open the box from his father’s lawyers. “I’ll tell you what’s in Canada. Mountains and trees and sky. A lot of Canadian peace and quiet. And us! We’d be there. We’re everything, and we’d be there.” It occurred to him, as it sometimes did, that divorce proceedings may have begun at this moment even in a harmless jest. If he and Isobel were any less responsible people, or any less rational, this might have been the insertion of the little blade, the pry-bar, a little jokey disagreement – because maybe a rumor of new money changes things, erodes things, to reveal a faultline. Maybe a rumor of money comes in and “captures” a sort of “low spot.”

But of course, not in their case. One decides otherwise. She’d lost interest in batting around his Canada idea. She was happy. Her thighs, forearm-like, in black stretch pants, were parted as she squatted before the refrigerator prodding among her groceries. A bunch of parsely. Carrots that were white and conical, so they must not be carrots. Green grapes in a bag. Isobel was a trophy, a fact that worked out to be a social and public condition. He started legitimately naturally losing ardor around the time she was going into her first adventures elsewhere. The obvious rationale was that a separate, “extramarital” life outside – its peculiar publicity – required its own special privacy. Such was the emotion, which carried the name patience. But also, he had an investment of himself here. One preserves what’s left by a policy of patience, tolerance, optimism – along with the more mystical vague knowledge that nobody, ever, has any moral high ground. Quite the opposite, he’d long been sensing her beauty to be somehow harsh. Which was his problem, almost a kind of failure of courage in him, which he always liked averting his attention from.

Right then – during the local lull that is vulnerable to a foredestined phone-ringing – the phone did ring, the lull itself a low spot, which can get captured from outside. And she went for it.

“Hello?” she said, and she was even more happy. She was rescued. That telephone’s alarms and interruptions suspended their lives in a saving web. “Of course. Let’s see. Sunday after next. We’re open. I’m always happy to eat your food at your show.” She was already at the appointment calendar lifting her pen. She lived most brilliantly in the world outside these walls. The truth was, maybe being home together tonight, without a party or a preview or a dinner or an opening, felt like an undiscussed personal failure of theirs. Which the spectacle of exotic cooking was to disguise. It was one of the ways he had always exploited Isobel Harkness: her brilliant life. It often brought him the contacts that otherwise wouldn’t come to a PR man like him who really didn’t like going out any more. At thirty-eight. Didn’t even want to see the movies that were out there these days, even the ones targeted predictably for his demographic. Moreover, it was her income that made them comfortable. His own little office generated little.

Meanwhile in his lap, the last boxtop flap tore.

Inside, there were no documents. It was a loose collection of his father’s old junky possessions.

It smelled of him. Old shoes. With no note. No explanation. Topmost: an amateur watercolor on heavy paper.

He checked the return address. It was the San Rafael lawyer. Then inside, he found the lawyer’s note. “County of Marin Probate #623555-09 Edward X. Sproehnle…”

He poked around. It may have been – it probably was – the contents of the old man’s locker at the San Rafael Garbage Dump.

This was probably legal routine: Send everything. The main obstacle was the thin smell, the hard-won personal odor of a life. On top was a watercolor picture of a cottage with lilacs. On its reverse side, the paintbrush had written, in a flowing hand he thought of as hippie-girl calligraphy, with a feeble ink, as if she’d dipped her brush in Red Zinger tea:


To Ed —-

Here’s Where You’ll be Able To Find Me


His family didn’t know anybody who did watercolors. His family didn’t know artistic types. His family didn’t, in fact, know anybody.

And there was the old bowl, the dirty blue plastic bowl the old man ate every meal out of, like a monk for years when he lived alone and worked at the San Rafael Dump taking fees at the gate, in a plywood booth.

There was a cigar box, too, containing cufflinks, shirt buttons, a photograph of two guys. Which must be the Army. There were a few diamonds of shattered safety glass from a broken automobile window; and an acorn. The two guys in the photograph, standing in a driveway in the sun, must have died in combat; they had doomed easy smiles.

Someday soon, when the last trickle of junk like this (and of course a minuscule inheritance-check) finally came from the lawyers, the cheerful old man would be permanently installed in the past, under the tons of fast-accumulating history, where his memory, printed flat under the weight, would move no more. At the bottom of the box were the shoes, the heavy wingtip businessman-shoes. These were the footwear the locally famous Ed Sproehnle wore around town, with no socks.

“…Mysterious,” said Isobel. She had come to look over his shoulder, making Virgil bristle, because she radiated a scorn she had no right to. “If you’re going to eat out of one single bowl for twenty years, why is it blue plastic?”

He closed the cardboard flaps over it all. Which would cause her to turn and leave.

It struck him at that moment what his anxious, peeved feeling was. It had been in his gut all day: She wouldn’t accept a Jaguar, he knew it all along deep-down, she’d say no thanks, the old minivan is more practical, and she would make out that a Jaguar is a vulgar middle-class thing because she was the one who went to private boarding schools. So he could just revise his plan, erase it, without its ever being mentioned. The Jaguar never existed.

At his shoulder, she made a sigh, condensing a little pity, and she walked back into the brilliance leaving him in the dining room in twilight with the box on his lap.

He could hear her in the kitchen making a crackle of ripping butcher-paper. At the snake’s revelation she cried, “Whoa” – and she came to appear in the doorway. On the open, unswaddling butcher-paper, she displayed a white length of flesh, skinned and beheaded. “Behold the rattlesnake!”










People Obviously Don’t Consciously Think About What’s Going in Their Mouths





“…Boaz, are you aware of any of this tonight?”

The Cadet on her cloud has become so engrossed in this – in Virgil’s self-pity, Virgil’s amazing, intricate self-pity – his positively artistic, virtuoso display of self-pity – so that now she’s sunk to her knees at the fluffy edge to watch. He’s poisoning the marriage, he’s poisoning all Creation – the self-sacrifice attitude, it’s so penetrating, it gets on everything. Now, too, with the rumor of an inevitable End Time, every deed will seem to weigh more. Or at least seem to inscribe more of a permanent mark.

She only entered the Office a minute ago, but when she came upon Virgil’s personal drama – his lifelong martyrdom as a husband – the whole performance is so stunning, she was instantly on all fours at the edge getting every nuance. As for Boaz, he’s in the Office. He’s been here the whole time. But he’s doing his Euclid. It’s as if he didn’t even hear her question, preferring to be preoccupied.

But he does then respond. Without looking up. “Yes. That casino. We ought to ask Mischal. No antecedents. No memo from her Angels. It is confusing. Sudden appearance of a casino.”

“Boaz, have you noticed lately that Virgil is the lifelong victim of his wife?”

Boaz doesn’t receive sarcasm. She checks over her shoulder. He’s positioning one leg of a geometer’s compass on the page. Grim with concentration.

All she did was come out of the darkroom for a minute, and in the Office she happens to look over the edge, and what does she see? During the time she’s been working, her fellow-Cadet Boaz has been out here paying not the slightest attention, while Virgil in Earth is worrying that he risks a callousness in his own soul from living with a morally inferior person. And then telling her he’s always wanted to live in Canada. Which, in fact, he does not. And sit on the shore of a lake and rent canoes. And wear Hawaiian shirts, an added detail perfectly calculated to win her aversion. All the while, Cadet Boaz has been here. His geometry tools are spread far and wide.

The geometry is escapism. It’s his blinkers. The little green envelope has changed everything. History is gathering toward its final sort of “climax.” It’s incredible and Boaz will have opened his Euclid in order to turn his back on that rising cumulonimbus.

She envies him his distractions actually, because after all, she may not have been perfect but she spent a long, hard millennium in Lower Purgatory. Yet now the really Malevolent Unrepentant get instant forgiveness. All they had to do was ask. In a way, it does sound fair, of course. She’d be the last to complain. Or resent, or even question, or have any reservations.

She looks to the IN box.

The green envelope isn’t there. So Mischal has it in hand.

They can’t come out and ask him. It would mean they’ve been prying.

“Boaz, you should be watching this. Virgil is down there thinking his wife has some sort of a small-capacity heart. Boaz, come here and look.”

While his compass makes a firm arc, Boaz offers some advice, “Hokhma? The damage a man does, he does to himself. Always. It’s a principle Virgil, too, is somewhat aware of.”

That’s not even true. People also damage other people besides themselves. It’s ridiculous to assert.

He sits back and considers the page, looking pleased with it. Each hour of Boaz’s existence is incomplete until he’s delivered at least one patronizing remark. That pinkie-finger of his: it’s perhaps always lifted. Its fine brown length and its shrimp underside, it’s possible she’s never seen that pinkie-finger relax and curl. Not ever. Not in any circumstance.

Anyway, she goes out in a new pitch, “The riverboat casino, mm-hm. It did come out of nowhere. There was never an uncle in Louisiana I ever heard of.”

This brings his eyes up from the page.

Then he goes back to the geometry. “Why don’t you look it up.”

One wouldn’t know where to look. On one shelf there’s a fat volume called Contingencies – Exigencies – Greater Teleology. Which might say something.

Boaz adds, “Mischal will explain it.”

She watches him. His sticky affectations of elegance. His constant lonely pretense of certainty. – And now the entire game is up, Hell to be amalgamated with Heaven. Sin to be forgiven. The game is definitely up. His game is up, and so is hers, too. The end of time, too, surely. The game is up but it’s just not what anyone expected. Not precisely in this way. “Forgiveness” of absolutely everything.

Also, their Angel Mischal seems to be not mentioning it. He isn’t exactly concealing it, but at least he’s deferring the news of it.[17] If it’s wonderful news, shouldn’t it be announced everywhere?

All the “apocalyptic” battles and Judgments, the trumpets and earthquakes: None of that will apply. Seven-headed beasts, rains of fire, plagues, all such farfetched scenes, all that was always as ridiculous as it seemed.

Instead, now there’s to be a kind of orderly “merger” of Heaven and Hell, like a purely bureaucratic process. As if Hell and Heaven were two corporations agreeing not to compete anymore.

Admittedly, it’s a more rational prospect. And a kind of a less bothersome prospect.

She looks down over the edge. Below, in a San Francisco apartment, the rattlesnake’s musical-looking skeleton lies abandoned, picked clean, on a platter on the kitchen counter. Dinner has been left behind. In the apartment bedroom, on the bed, under the illumination of their computer screensaver, the unclothed man has gone straight to all the dependable tried-and-true kinds of caresses that will provoke pleasure in the unclothed woman. An Angel wishes to avert her eyes – an Angel who would ordinarily feast her vision. It would almost be interesting right now if Cadets could intervene – and attack him with a true heart pain, a miracle, a stab in the chest, to watch him keel off to one side, eyes bright with penitence at ground zero. As a new Cadet, she has never yet witnessed that crystalline moment, where eternity is condensed and everything fuses. Heart attacks, reputedly, are a category of miracle complicated to Petition.[18] Above his blinded wife he rises in a slack push-up, imagining himself as a sort of wise custodian of his wife’s soul – the sketchy little merely neuronal “soul” he pictures for the woman connected somehow ultimately to the clitoris.

Well, he has dwindled. Thirty-eight years old, trouble-free, consequence-free, Virgil Sproehnle of Terra Linda, so far in his life, has merely been ambitious. And as far as he is capable of seeing, he achieved his ambitions.

In the bedroom on Earth, Isobel’s computer screensaver (a slow scan over a Mondrian painting) fills the monitor with passing zones of color – yellow, blue, red – dyeing the walls, dyeing Virgil’s flesh, his face buried in shadow as he works. Even while the man’s male consciousness churns blindly down like one of those underwater stingrays that, by flapping, can vanish into the ocean floor, he yet has an odd saving thought: today will have been a good day for Isobel, because she bought some Chinese jade and she will have gotten her little orgasm after all.

“If we got started petitioning for a heart attack – or a stroke—” she’s really just thinking out loud, “—you know, it’s possible that there isn’t much more Time, Boaz.”

There, now, she’s mentioned it explicitly.

Boaz doesn’t answer. He can’t address that.

So that opportunity passes.

“We’ll fail with him and he’ll burn in Hell,” she says, though that’s an exaggeration.

In fact, will there be any – even slight? – vestige of Hell?

No. Obviously not. Apparently not.

Boaz’s geometry is finished, for he has begun putting away the chrome tools in their little velvet-lined case, giving each a farewell wipe with his jeweler’s rouge cloth. “Dear Hokhma, let him have his moral superiority. It can can pave the road to despair. And soon, inshallah, he will meet up with the mountain girl you’ve been, shall we say, corrupting just for the occasion, the poor woman.” He slides his page away into his portfolio. “Besides,” he adds, “will there be a Hell anymore?” – himself now touching the forbidden topic. Echoing her own thoughts exactly.

Isobel, in the bedroom, rolls herself over prone on the mattress and positions the Portable Vasari book so its edge will catch her center, and her head rears leashed while Virgil works for her deliverance. Boaz has had too much influence. Even at the extremity of love Virgil will call on his reserves of patience! And Isobel will resort again to pressing the hidden doorbell alone while Virgil kisses her radiant temples and neck and, in his own mind, forgives her.

Just to linger here resenting Boaz’s influence, it’s probably not only a sin, it’s a waste of time. Maybe there really isn’t much Time left. What she wants to do, while there’s still time, is ruin Virgil’s past more irreversibly.

Not bothering with a farewell or a “so long,” she leaves and goes back to work.

Down the corridor. Back to the darkroom.

The paradox of her partner Boaz is that, for all his awfulness, he amounts to tolerable company, partly just because he’s somewhat gorgeous to be around, his warm baritone, his sculptural face and physique, his wrongheaded attempts to be big-brotherly. The conceitedness – and the pontificating, the sanctimony – all that isn’t anything you’d want to come out and damage, really. It’s part of his whole make-up. He’ll make it out of Purgatory. He’ll get out via his own peculiar, idiosyncratic route. In the darkroom, she pulls the light-lock door shut. Everything is on the editing bench just as she left it.

There’s always fine seclusion here in this room, when the outer door is pulled shut, ruling out the spokes of radiance that, everywhere in Heaven, poke among the mists. Inside here, the eternal camera-perfect dimness is, itself, the creative medium. She loves the room, room of endless evolutions, its amber sensitivity, its literally infinite resources, its clutter. She draws up the chair on casters.

Before she left, she’d threaded a film from 1979 through the sprockets and over the little cup of blazing white light. The leader strip on the right-hand reel rolled up tight and hard, and when she started turning the crank,[19] an old image started flickering in the viewer. Virgil’s childhood in Terra Linda. The small lawns. The sidewalks. The dark sunshine of memory.

And there, on the backyards of childhood, was little Ricki Moss, shirttails flying, red hair tossing. Virgil couldn’t keep up with Ricki Moss, even back then, and even though she was younger. He used to catch her in the middle of neighborhood games like hide-and-seek, behind the oak or by the Paschkes’ chain-link fence, and she could always be effortlessly persuaded (just by a simple direct proposal, every time) to go down behind the furnace with him. Ricki Moss – then new-arrived with her parents from some distant city, soon to be taken away again by another move elsewhere – today a powerful studio executive in Hollywood – was one of the children always available until dinnertime for play on the lawns. He was older so he had the authority, and he would snatch at her in the midst of tag, or kick-the-can or hide-and-seek, and whisper, Let’s go for some secret bombings. When, then, the two of them disappeared together, the wondrous thing was that she trusted him, trusted him, the arrangement of the laundry heap for comfort, behind the furnace the flicker of the little red candle stub, the amazement of seeing a girl’s shirt buttons one-by-one drain through buttonholes, her own complacent delight like a spectator, and then to see a shirt’s placket parted – all a very worrisome sweetness, to be dispatched in fear of being discovered, until the revelation of skin, a boyish ribcage and two spots the color of her lips. Because it was allowed and because it was conventional, he could set his lips to those spots, and he could skate over her skin and veer only near his own inner boundaries until she would call a sudden end to it and button up. She was the one who’d started calling it “the secret bombings” after some dimly conceived event of the Vietnam War on TV. It’s time for the secret bombings, he’d tell her when he’d taken her aside from kick-the-can, and then lead her down into the basement via a slanted door, damp cement steps. From overhead, the big-band sound of Glenn Miller would come through the basement ceiling. These were the days when his father was home. In the kitchen right above, the blender would roar regularly, making daiquiris with a crashing of ice cubes, the big foaming Hamilton Beach blender with its ultra-modern, ultra-deluxe control panel of plastic buttons in a row (mix chop grind fold puree blend), churning ice cubes with rum and sugar, all through the summer afternoons in his father’s never-ending celebration. Celebration of his discharge, and the long row of monthly government checks stretching into the future until the grave. The Sproehnle house was a place where the Glenn Miller never stopped. This family never did care for acid rock, disco, pop. Every morning began with Glenn Miller – or Artie Shaw, or Benny Goodman – even when Virgil was small, he could help with the music, as if conspiring somehow with his dad – as if somehow conspiring against his mother – setting a new stack of records on the turntable’s automatic spindle. The tall chrome spindle had a tiny scissoring notch. That wonderful notch could hold a stack of heavy black records. But it had a trick of only releasing one at a time! When the first disk dropped, with a plop, and the automatic-robot tonearm set the needle down, to start crackling in the groove, he would run back out into the yard in his pajamas, where his father, also in his pajamas, would be working with the wheelbarrow, the hoe, the soil-mix bag. It was a party. Sometimes he’d get a ride in the wheelbarrow, because his father had a trick, he could steer by hooking his bad arm’s wrist under one of the two handles. All the windows and doors were open. “The G.I. Jive” or “Mission to Moscow” or “Tuxedo Junction” (he knew them all!) or “Begin the Beguine” would pour through the open windows, and Virgil would go get another daiquiri for his father. Everybody’s favorite was the long one with the Gene Krupa drum solo. His mother, in those days, too, went along with it, in her calf-length white pants with the belt of soft white rope, and her sailor top. All summer in the twilight depths of that house, the high-noon darkness indoors was always lit by his mother’s dyed-blonde haystack of hair. This was before she let it grow out mousy. From his first consciousness, he was a boy who located himself in the world by knowing exactly how far away was the bright stack of hair, and in which direction it was moving.

In that basement, behind the furnace in the glow of the red-wax candle, Virgil only wanted their enchantment to get stranger, the laundry-pile to grow more engulfing, but a girl turned out to be a peculiarly constructed animal, for on each occasion, tendernesses and strokings and lingerings finally had the sudden, explosive effect of energizing her, to button up and stand up, and drag him outside for more tag with everybody, and more football and hide-and-seek and kick-the-can, until finally her family left town.

All this was where the darkroom monitor had frozen. The Cadet had meant to uncover a real sin. And Ricki Moss amounts to a kind of second-rate sin. But what a Guardian wants is debilitating sin. There are sins that can come along and inflict permanent systemic damage.

So Hokhma will put away all the materials of the laundry pile and the red wax candle. On the lowest shelf, there’s a bin they seldom dip into:


Edward X. Sproehnle

1940 Lewiston, Maine – 2000 San Rafael, California

The metal filmcans are stored vertically, and she finds one marked 1979, a rather surprisingly heavy one. She unlids it and she glides on her chair casters to the B monitor, and on the spindle, she mounts the reel. Work feels oddly urgent, for some reason this morning.

If sin and Hell are to be “abolished,” and “forgiven” – if that’s possible! – then possibly Guardians’ powers will be taken away. Maybe soon they’ll have no role in Earth. Possibly there isn’t much of Time left, to discover who Virgil Sproehnle will have been.[20]

General forgiveness: she can only picture “general forgiveness” as a kind of long parade of the filthy and crippled, perhaps filing through some back-entrance of Heaven, a procession of the most unworthy creatures, into the bright rain of forgiveness.

So, even Virgil Sproehnle, wily and babyish, is to enter into the Light along with the rest. There’s still Time in Earth. Misery begins in the heart. All the work of Providence. And remorse sharper than any heart attack.

She inserts the clear leader film into the slit on the take-up reel. She threads the film through the sprockets and over the little cup of light. The leader strip on the right-hand reel rolls up tight, and when she starts turning the crank, a tender old image flutters like a moth in the viewer. And the first thing that appears onscreen is the big orange ceramic ashtray.











The Big Orange Ceramic Ashtray





Virgil hadn’t thought of it for years: the big orange ceramic ashtray.

It hit him not as a proper memory but just a chest discomfort – or just a form of shapeless dread – and then it condensed into this ashtray before his eyes. Under the changing colors from the screensaver, he lay beside Isobel while she began to snore, both of them tossed up on the mattress estranged by lovemaking as now she ebbed away into her separate sleep.

And suddenly he saw the ashtray in his parents’ yellow kitchen. Every home in Terra Linda naturally had ashtrays everywhere, it would have been backward not to have ashtrays – but this particular expensive-looking orange ceramic bowl, in the middle of the kitchen table on Robinsong Lane, was like a central hub in his parents’ marriage over the years, keeping them together, whatever other bonds failed, sought by the blind automatic baptismal-font tap, of first one partner, then the other, through the hours, through the seasons, always on the low counter-table where they ate breakfasts, lunches, dinners, beside the napkin dispenser and the salt-and-pepper and the steak sauce bottle. It was oversized, it was a deluxe ashtray, a swollen boomerang shape, shallow, with a ceramic glaze like mango-and-papaya, spangled by bumps in the shapes of sunken rubberbands which were also boomerang-shaped. In the days when things began to come apart, the ashtray was what they still had in common. His mother was smoking then (during their smoking years she was the fiercer smoker), and she sat herself down in her low swivel-chair, expertly thumbed a flame from the disposable Bic, and told Virgil’s father, “Ed, I’ve applied for a job.” She was sitting across from him.

Looking steadily, she crouched further in the chair descending into his field of vision, to get a grip on the man’s fragile self-respect. “It’s at the Bank of America, it’s a teller’s training position, and they’ve accepted my application, and I’m going to do it.”

Virgil’s father grinned downward, and then said, “Oh, honey, don’t do this.”

Virgil was twelve and they thought he wasn’t anywhere nearby but his presence sharpened guiltily in the next room.

His father said, “My Disability is enough. Aren’t we doing fine?”

“Ed, the house is like we’re Mexicans here. What do you plan to do with those two old water heaters? I can barely park the car.”

“Tell you what, I’ll move them today.”

They both stopped talking to let their lungs fill from their separate cigarettes. When his father finally did move out, she quit right away and never took it up again. So did he. They only smoked when they were married.

“Evvie,” his father then went to the heart of the matter, “Maybe I don’t have a job, but this is the good life. Look around.”

“I do. I look around.”

“We could hardly have a grocery bill all summer.”

He always exaggerated. The big vegetable garden contributed mostly funny stories of fiasco and bad luck and “learning opportunities,” almost no real food.

“Just picture it from outside, Ed, if you were a stranger driving along the street, seeing it.”

“So it’s not manicured. It looks like somebody lives here.” He’d said these things a thousand times.

“And look. What is that?”

That is gonna be a swamp cooler. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

“We should have real air conditioning. We should have a lawn. We should have real phones like normal, instead of all these wires.”

“It’s fun. And Virgil helps. He’s going to learn a little bit about electronics.”

Virgil in the next room slipped back within the couch. He’d been peeking too openly.

“Ed,” she lowered her voice. “You hardly even…” and she gestured outward, off the property, where he never had any practical reason for going.

She had hit a defenseless spot. It was the first remark that hadn’t already been said a thousand times.

So she changed her tone. “…The job pays six hundred to start. Virgil is old enough now.”

His father said, “I go out all the time: the hardware store, the gas station, like anybody else.”

“Yeah for wood scraps from construction jobs.”

“Another thing: no heating bill.”

“You know what I mean,” she said, in a gentle tone that was merciless, so Ed Sproehnle had to take another drag on his cigarette and look out the sliding glass door.

“Far be it from me,” he reflected, mistily, in general. He added, “I never did want to rain on anybody’s parade,” referring to the outside world. That, out there, was the parade he wouldn’t want to rain on. “We got a half-acre. Let’s take advantage.” The half-acre was another of his regular exaggerations, though as a child Virgil believed it.

But he, too, had been ashamed. That spring, with his school-friends, he had been allowed to go to a movie unchaperoned. It was at the Northgate Mall cinema. When they came out after the show, they came upon his father, Mr. Sproehnle in his usual attire, outside under the marquee looking for discarded cigarette butts, picking through the sand trays – wearing no socks, bare-ankled – and he slipped the rescued butts in his pocket and greeted Virgil’s friends with a startled effusive diplomacy, he was so pleased and grateful to be introduced to Virgil’s friends, holding out his weird left-handed handshake upside-down, pocketing the bad hand. Virgil hadn’t seen him outside the confines of their yard for many days. This was what he did when he went out, he went cigarette-butt scavenging.

“Well,” his mother said. Her kitchen-chair complained in its metal swivel socket. “We have to talk.”

We have to talk: that sounded like the announcement of a new regime.

If so, Virgil was glad. He didn’t like being summoned from TV just to watch his dad soldering circuits in the garage, and listen to his advice about thinking outside the box, not being slaves to consumerism. He didn’t want to spend his weekends watering the garden, by hand, with a cut-off piece of hose that had been pulled from the trash somewhere. Or devising ingenious new uses for cardboard and Portland cement. When his father wasn’t digging in the garden, he was hanging around in the garage, out of his museum of broken parts repairing appliances you couldn’t depend on, by the light of the paired fluorescent tubes overhead, sitting in his pillow-stacked office chair among the towering shelves, the coffee cans and cut-off cereal boxes where salvageable things were sorted. The ceiling in the garage was a low-hanging forest, because rinsed cellophane and Baggies were hung by clothespins on coat hangers to dry, for re-use in school lunches. His mother agreed. Virgil should be able to watch television like other kids.

His mother said, “Ed? There are reasons – I mean there are good reasons to have a certain standard.”

He didn’t seem to have any ready answer to that. Then he said, “Well, Evelyn,” with a gesture around, “You married me.”

A silence came over the kitchen. No chair creaked. Virgil crept to see better. The gaunt middle-aged man said, while his penetrating eyes read deep into the big ashtray, “We made a vow, Ev. It’s natural, as the years go, people aren’t necessarily going to hit their mark and be perfect. That happens. But you’ve made a vow, and you get what you get, and it’s something, not nothing. Call that failure if you like. But the vow is still there. The vow is still standing.”

His mother was looking fixedly away, into the blaze of the yellow kitchen wall, ridding herself of him. This was obviously hard for her. She lit another cigarette. The Bic’s flare, close in her face, didn’t make her squint at all. Non-filter Pall Malls used to be another thing they shared, too, but she had moved on disloyally to True cigarettes, with their intelligent high-tech filter, plastic-partitioned inside, with side-pinholes to let in oxygen.

She said, “‘Still standing.’ You talk as if everybody rots to nothing, and the vow is all what’s left.”

Bowing, he made his grin of cockeyed bewilderment. It was always a bewilderment exploited for its comedy. The head-scratching wincing routine. He said, “Ha,” smiling into the ashtray.

In any case, the little joke was conclusive. Virgil, in his stocking feet, stopped peeking and got off the couch. He slipped past the aluminum screen door, out to the street. He didn’t want to be around for the rest. The future would prove her right: Evelyn Sproehnle would have a life that was free of the mistaken vow. After Ed moved across town, she would be a single mother, working at the bank every day, every evening ambitious for Virgil’s homework – whereas Ed Sproehnle indeed, when no longer held together by a vow, would sift away into the job of a fee-taker at the trash heap east of town, and fade toward the sunny decade of his dying. During the very hour of the old man’s death, in the hospital, Virgil sat in a bedside chair and waited. Then, when it was done, got up and walked out. And told a nurse and then kept on going – along hospital corridors built wide enough to steer gurneys and custodians’ carts – and in the ground-floor lobby, the exit-doors sensed his approach and they parted, freeing him to hot air and his parking place and the world’s Taco Bell smell, where his windshield bore a parking ticket: He’d parked in a Temporary Visitor slot, and it would cost him $47, which seemed all right, not an excessive penalty, for a man who otherwise was pretty much getting away scot-free.

A moment did come, six months after his father’s death, when, standing in the shower, Virgil wept – it was a strange wringing to be visited upon a man. It lasted a while. It made him tired so he knelt on the shower floor, where the clear water disappeared through the circular grid at the center of the floor between his knees. His bony knees. He stayed like that until the hot water ran out and a cooler river poured down on him, and then he turned off the water and stood up and got out and toweled himself dry.

We’ve got a metal beer keg in the carpool lane, west 580 at the Interchange. A fresh voice, coming from the kitchen, spoke in the radio speaker above the rattlesnake skeleton. The fatality on 101 has been pulled to the side. Still, it’s slow-and-go now. The stalled big-rig has been cleared. But do exercise caution out there.

It was nice. It was comforting and important. The NPR demographic included him and Isobel and the whole Bay Area cohort of, statistically, double-income households, owners of their own homes, four-years-of-college, drivers of two cars per household (1.6 likely to be imported), 2.8 computers per household, disposable income in a percentile well above median. The demographic was like a village knitted together, people warning each other on the radio, to be careful of traffic hazards out there in the dark, the few who weren’t home yet. Home yet from the extra hours at the office. Home from trying the new restaurant. It turned out to be a fortunate thing for him, as a child, that he was present to eavesdrop on an important quarrel between his parents, because – this was a constructive attitude – it gave him an early glimpse, into the dire workings of the world. Into integrity. What happens when you don’t have it. Here he was today with Isobel and NPR and certain cultural advantages, fortunate connections, a good SEP-IRA, the privilege of love, self-esteem, a home that’s doing better than the Dow, the screensaver washing the room with colors, while deep in his mind a few syllables spun in a pinwheel modeeliani modeeliani modeeliani.










Another Night




So doth San Francisco sink beneath another night.

On Lombard Street the mile-long series of stoplights shifts to its late-night sequence, while along the wharf, the rubber mats are hosed down in the glare of floodlamps. In apartment windows, television blasts interior walls. Certain children do settle down to their homework. Certain other children don’t. South of Market in the clubs, ultraviolet lights are turned on – which don’t effect to hide any lint-and-smudge, but only make lint-and-smudge incandesce. Only the crowd, when it arrives, will hide the lint-and-smudge. Bartenders all over town will be entering their busy period and can’t stay to chat any more. In the Tenderloin the streetwalker gives her halter a lift, her skirt a tug; and the doorman at the Fairmont steps into the shadow of the porte cochere to count his tips so far. Somewhere a young wife and mother, who has supposedly quit smoking, and indeed has a phlegmy cough, slips outside the garden gate, to take a puff or two and look up at the stars. The man in a parka at Fifth and Mission shivers on his favorite streetcorner, the streetcorner he prefers over any city homeless shelter. People will pass him by without putting a coin in his cup of gnawed styrofoam. And the witnessing Cadet at her zenith of contemplation finds herself, still, stranded high upon some hard-to-see paradox that’s somehow contained in the future: that an Everlasting Day is inevitable. Is actually near. All mystic blaze. And never again darkness. How can that be? Guardian in a high niche, she keeps her watch long after the theatre-district’s subsidence, long after the appearance of the padlocks on bars’ double-doors, the hour she loves best, the hour when the bridge toll plaza is closed down to a single lane, the hour of adulterers’ flights, of children’s fevered clamminess abed in dreams. The hour of the parking meter’s lone vigil in a sidestreet.

She is alone at her post late, then, when, in the corridor outside Virgil Sproehnle’s apartment door, a small event transpires. It’s an event that wasn’t anticipated. The Angels of Isobel Harkness have obviously been at work. Only she, a waking Cadet, is there to know of it.

A delivery boy arrives at that late hour. He is from Hoogasian Flowers, and he sets a bouquet on the doormat outside the apartment where Virgil and Isobel sleep. It’s a bouquet he was supposed to have delivered to Harkness Fine Art downtown. But Harkness Fine Art was closed up tight, and the rules of the job constrain him never to leave a bouquet on the sidewalk – and now it’s late. He has already fallen far behind in his route (for certain nefarious reasons of his own, having to do with love, which do not figure in this story, nor pertain to this Tutelary Office). A card taped in the window of the Harkness gallery, addressed to all FedEx and UPS drivers, had directed him here. So this would be good enough.

Isobel Harkness’s Angels have indeed been at work. This basket, a gift of her chiropractor friend, will be found to contain white roses in a bed of ferns and moss, a pink sealed envelope, and a plastic “Incredible Hulk” action-figure. It will be found not by Isobel, for whom it was intended. It will be found by Virgil, tomorrow morning.

Virgil, without mentioning it, will rush the whole basket straight down to parking, where he will drop it securely in the trash, after having read the sealed note inside:


Dear Is,*


You say you were once wild and impetuous but no longer. So I met you too late. My misfortune. For I am still: wild and imp. Or still trying to be. Yet I think of what might have been. We perpetual boy-childs do pity the grownups. But anyway here is a symbol of lasting admiration. Jack.


*(or (say it ain’t so!) should I say Dear Was?)


It is a turn of events this Tutelary Office isn’t prepared for. Isobel Harkness seems to be revolving toward a different light. Which of course she has every right to do. For reasons only her Angels will know, Isobel Harkness has perhaps reached a certain age and seems to be withdrawing from a certain form of sin and delight.

Yes, the Cadet can’t help but see the false note, frankly, in the Incredible Hulk doll. Which must have been meant as some kind of intimate joke. But which somehow accidentally conveys a tiredness in the man’s clowning around. It would be understandable: a woman might not want to put a man through that anymore. Or keep herself there, either, in the role of audience. The chiropractor here seems about as gracious as he has the ability to be, but the farewell is oddly sour – its bluff, vaunting tone – its hurt feelings – its willingness to hurt in return, ever so faintly staining through. For the Cadet herself, during her own mortal lifetime it might have been something of a peculiar attraction – a man with passions, a man of vulnerabilities, a man who can go ahead and do a stupid thing sometimes with confidence in his ability to recover. But Isobel, no. Isobel is well out of that.

She is alone at her station and she only wishes somebody else were awake – either the Angel Ordinary or her fellow-Cadet – so she could share this. Because she’s the only one who knows.

And it’s strangely worrisome. It’s as if a new resolve of faithfulness could somehow be a kind of betrayal, paradoxically – a betrayal of an established situation, like a sudden “cashing-in” – not like a bankruptcy necessarily, but some kind of inventory she’s taking, some kind of consolidation, implying shrinkage.

The feeling is, if a wife now is going to be monogamous, it will be a test of the marriage.


Because meanwhile, that same evening, certain other relevant events had been set in motion. Many miles from San Francisco, far from the Bay Area’s light-pollution glow, a vertical 3/4-mile higher in elevation, a cabin was hidden off a road above North Liberty. Up in these hills, the silence at night can be solid. In the spring, still too cold tonight for the sound of the cricket. The house is far from the plash of the creekfall where, always, a wheel in a heavy plastic housing sang one single note as it spun to create forty kWh/day for the Gro-Lites and the pumps and the seedling mats. And the lab ovens tonight drying rice. Tall cedars sheltered the cabin. Out front, an old Volvo was parked under the oak, along with a rented pickup for errands.

Inside, Sheila Carmel had surrounded herself with her favorite things. The wooden paddles, the lidded crocks, the heap of today’s mushrooms, wet parsley, balsamic, slender onions fresh-scrubbed of dirt. The main room elsewhere was mostly dark. In the distant corner, Bob worked at his computer screen, a fetus in his separate globe of light, where, she supposed, he was probably doing his nightly internet search on his Dominy Dam obsession. She was separated from him by the room’s darkness, within her own kitchen of small flickerings, the kerosene lamp over the sink, the blue bracelet of propane, the tapers above the butcherblock, the butcherblock a raft on skittering shadows. The precariousness of the little kitchen she controlled, the hiddenness of their life under the tall trees, the shelteredness, all suddenly wove up around her and tightened to pleasant strangulation. Quietly, in her corner, NPR murmured of obstacles littering the freeway in San Francisco, tonight a beer keg out there somewhere, to be swerved around. And a stalled big-rig. She was home in the mountains under the tall cedars. The back-up batteries were diverted to Bob’s computer because every night he undertook an internet search, for anything pertaining to “dam” and “failure” and “repair,” anything with “Bureau of Reclamation” or “Dominy.” When he was done with that, he would check the Carmel Family Trusts.

Which would keep him occupied far into the evening. Recently he had been corresponding with an estate lawyer because he wanted to have the trust agreements reviewed, to ensure that, when he died, Sheila would come into Trusteeship. A man begins preparing for that strange event, his own demise. Males, in this way, make her think of deep-country backpackers, the way they carry what they need for themselves, and with quiet resolve pack and move on. What made it enter his mind now? He’s in good health. This was how her own father, before her birth, entered history, by filing himself away in documents.

“Sheila, I want you to do something for me,” he said. “Now listen.”

There it was, the little inward stiffening, of rebellion, because she knew she would do whatever it was.

“Yes?” she used her tone of inquiry.

She stirred the chestnuts with the mushrooms. If she ever left him, he would be helpless. Tonight when she came home, she’d found him barefoot in the kitchen eating granola barehanded straight out of the bin, by pinches or by scoops, oats clinging in his beard. Living with the esteemed scientist Robert Newton had given her a fortunate perspective on the world and its hierarchies. Her duty would always be here in this cabin, her mind knew it – her body was what had no patience and wanted out.

He cleared his throat – he turned in his chair and he took off his glasses, to lift his face and address her directly – it was something he never did – he had such handsome eyes without glasses, it was shocking – and he said, “I want you to get a j-job in Dominy Shores, down in the foothills in that gated community. And be my s-. My spy.”

They were looking at each other across the length of the house through the darkness that came between. The computer screen lit his face as a half-moon, her own face surely ablaze in her own candlelight. In his sight, she felt suddenly both blameless and, simultaneously, guilty.

“‘A ‘job’ job? In the economy?”

He didn’t answer.

“‘Spy.’ Who’m I supposed to spy on?”

He turned back to his computer and replaced his flashing glasses on his face. He laid his hands back over the keyboard. “There must be something: something in a supermarket bagging groceries. A coffee shop. You know. Minimum wage.”

“Bob! What kind of spying?”

“I want you just to make yourself a citizen of the neighborhood for a while down around that reservoir. I don’t mean ‘spying’ spying. Just hanging out and hearing the neighborhood scuttlebutt talk. You know I’m watching that dam down there. A coffee shop would be good.”

“In Dominy Shores I don’t think they have neighborhoods, they’ve just got those…” – it was bleak down there – “curvy streets.”

Why was she feeling like the evasive unforthcoming one? She had gone back to chopping, and the parsley under her knife was already a juicy pile, sticking to the blade, but she went on chopping.

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “You are of course aware that I’ve been watching that silt-retention dam. At this point I’m interested in what people are saying down there. The latest news is, the d—” His stammering caught him. He mostly always did better at home.

He started again, “The dam is having engineering issues. Also, I’ve got some papers you need to sign, to give yourself a power-of-attorney in the Carmel Trust. You’re not a minor any more. Are you.”

With her insulated mitten she lifted the crock’s lid, its crunchy ring of clay-against-clay, all part of the theatre that kept her a housewife. She reduced the flame. Inside, under her wooden spoon, mushrooms and chestnuts revolved in butter and stock and thyme from the driveway. From her hand, last night’s wine drizzled out of the bottleneck and it came up in fumes. She really didn’t want to think critically about her stepfather’s roundabout assignment; it curved around an undescribed center; and now her own neck and shoulder were stuck in that kink. He never discussed his plans or his thinking.

Instead of inquiring into it in a normal way, she asked about the mushrooms, “Where’d you get these? They’re very stinky.”

– Which was a way of signalling acquiescence. Driving all the way down to that, as it were, rural suburb. Maybe poking a cash register, wearing an employee’s smock, being gracious with customers – the whole idea of a job in the economy: it could be tolerable in the sense that it might serve her own secret intrigues. But only providing she ever had any.

His large stony hands had been lying unmoving over the computer keys. He answered, “North side of Newt Hill. They sprout around madrones.”

So it was settled, to all appearances, she would go get a job.

She glanced again. He’d recovered his focus and was peering into the screen wrinkling his nose fiercely, which was his way of levitating his glasses-frames as they slipped.

She said, “This will come back as a sauce for the duck, too. If the – what’s-his-name, the intern – brings us a duck. I have all these chestnuts in preserves.”

He leaned in to see the screen better. He gave up wrinkling his nose, and with a forearm he pushed his glasses back up against his eyes.

She said, “Bit of a commute. All the way down to that development. Bob? Don’t you think?”

That complaint served, now, as a rigid nonnegotiable demand: to know the point of all this.

He sighed and he turned again to look at her. “I think there’s a political situation coming up in Dominy Shores. The dam is finally needing repair, and I think there’ll be factions. Some people will want it replaced, other people will want it decomissioned and let the river flow again.”

“I don’t want to be putting up posters, Bob. Posters are a diminishing-returns kind of activity.”

“No, no, I just want you to hang out and get people’s feelings. Opinions about this. That development doesn’t have a bar you could work in, which would be ideal. And they don’t have a local paper anymore.”

He revolved back to the screen. The debate was over.

“I suppose I would use the Volvo?” That, too, could be registered as an objection, a serious one.

He kept his eyes on the screen. “When you’re down there, you must never mention my research, not with anyone. Sssss… Somebody has been looking into our website. Has anyone come poking around?”

She said, “…‘Anyone’?”

“Just in case anyone does start poking around here, around North Liberty asking idle questions – reporters, whatever – would you please just not engage in a lot of conversation? And down in Dominy Shores, while you’re working there, don’t discuss what I do. Or even my name. T-tell people your stepfather is a farmer. Which is the truth. I don’t want to be reputed for anything political or science.”

While he spoke his fingers hovered and refrained from typing.

“Bob? Listen, if you’re going to have me postering or getting signatures, would you please just say so now?”

She heard her own voice there, and she had a realization. To complain or object – and this was a paradox all her own – was a form of submission.

Because what appealed to her, unfortunately, was the chance to – it all flooded in – get some good shoes and some clothes, and a haircut, and clean out the Volvo inside, and have someplace to go. Wantonly burn gasoline.

Bob didn’t answer. Click-click-click, the keyboard. She lifted the lid and, with her wooden spoon, turned things over. On the roof, the rain-forest drip was quickening as the dew got heavier. Occasionally a big drop, after a fifty-foot fall from a bough, slapped the shingles hard if it hit an open spot between fattening loaves of moss.

“Are you doing the trust?” she asked. She could see the Carmel Family Foundation website, its teal-and-pink color scheme, and she didn’t need to ask. She was just making talk, probably just stirring her capitulation into the general flow.

He kept typing. Bob’s powers of concentration could make the whole world inaudible to him. Well, she would find out what the “political” issue was. Probably, inevitably, it would involve getting signatures or something. Flying on Bob’s errands was always her path to enlightenment. In that way, she’d become a child here, in a state of arrested development, compared to New York. While he worked, his old mouth was open in an oval like a dead-man’s, as he seemed to compose some long message to the Carmel Family Trustees. Her mother’s last will and testament had provided a monthly allowance for him, but it also excluded him from trusteeship: just as if he were some kind of legal incompetent. Which in a way he was. He himself preferred the arrangement. Nevertheless he watched the investments. And he liked to fire off letters to the trustees. The trustees (who were merely Bob’s in-laws and their lawyers) sometimes did actually take his investment advice and heed it.

At last he said, “Why? Is dinner ready?”

“No. No hurry. You’re haranguing the trustees or something.”

“Saving the midwest. I’m talking them out of Monsanto. They’re really sunk into Monsanto.”

He crossed his arms and holstered his hands deep in his armpits and started reading aloud what he’d written. “‘Iowa t-topsoil is being eroded by industrial agriculture. Each year, twelve tons per acre of ancient rich dirt is lost. This is according to Land Institute figures. USDA and General Accounting Office calculations put the erosion loss much higher, at sixteen tons per acre per year, blown away by wind or washed away by rain. At the same time, underlying the midwest, the Ogallala Aquifer and the Silurian-Devonian Aquifer are being pumped out by agriculture. The Ogallala Aquifer has lost 850 million acre-feet now permanently. That is permanent depletion of ancient foss-foss- fossil water. It is not going to be replenished. It is the long-term effect of industrial agriculture, and it leads to desert conditions. Now, man has traditionally been a seed-eater, especially grass seeds, where protein is cached in gametes. Wild perennial grasses, like the fescue we work with here in North Liberty, have a lower ratio of reproductive tissue to vegetal tissue than the average Monsanto hybrid, with a protein yield of 9 kilos per acre, as compared with 19 kilos per acre in the case of Roundup-Ready SuperSeed spring wheat.’”

“They won’t care about this, take out all that,” she interrupted though she loved hearing him read, his unstammering voice, saved by being caught up inside a text.

“No, they like this stuff. This is the stuff they like. ‘However, wild fescues and legumes exhibit high meiotic stability and wide phenotype variety, allowing the breeder to select for such characteristics as nitrogen replenishment or insect resist- resistance. With proper breeding, they will eventually permit a till-free cultivation. That is the goal: till-free cultivation, like the Iroquois. If the prairie’s soil mat had never been cut by a plow or harrow, the sod would still be intact to retain water and hold down soil. Streams would run clear again rather than muddy. I invite the Foundation board members to stand on the banks of the Mississippi, the Iowa, the Fox, the Missouri, the Arkansas, and see for themselves the tonnage of mud being removed on an hour-by-hour basis. The Mmm-Mississippi was never a clear river and shouldn’t ever be. However, its present extreme muddiness is not its natural pre-agriculture state. That soil export is a result of modern capital-intensive monoculture, which depends on fenceline-to-fenceline plowing, of the kind that will reduce the great Midwestern agricultural basin to desert-like conditions during the next century.’”

She always had a stomach-ache living in this environment where, by Bob’s beneficence, she was shrunken hard and pithy. She would take a job in a suburb: probably he had a notion of developing a political base for the Conservancy, and it would eventually involve posters, as well as e-mail campaigns and mailings – but what he couldn’t have known was that, for her, taking a job and going out into the economy was like a conscious decision to turn to some secret vice, because sometimes poor Bob in his computer-glow was like an ayatollah, ayatollah in exile firing off his manifestos. She would do as he asked, she would go down to the treeless gated community and look for a job, if only because it offered a tunnel toward blue sky and it would get her out of this ecosystem.



But when, soon, the famous little yellow car can be seen traveling up into the foothills, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s headed finally for corruption. Angels may lay the groundwork. But men must make their own mistakes. And Boaz – Boaz especially, of the three Tutelaries – is worried that nothing immoral can happen now, nothing even the slightest bit regrettable. Not for a long time, anyway. Not for Virgil.

Because the wife now has done this peculiar thing, she’s dismissed the lover. And Virgil saw the bouquet. And read the note. She obviously has cut off a secret intrigue before it could even get started. Boaz’s worry is, it might mean a change in Isobel. What if it’s evidence that peculiar little Isobel Harkness might be ripening, on her own, into an ethical person? What if, now, she might never again plan to go unbuttoning herself for separate romance? He says, while watching over the edge, “If Virgil merely thinks his wife is maybe turning back to the marriage – I mean, at her age, going back to fidelity – possibly he won’t feel free to do anything foolish out on his own.”

His fellow-Cadet hasn’t been interrupting. Or contradicting. But it’s plain she’s not persuaded. “Knowing what I do, about men–” she at last muses.

“What I mean is, he might feel more loyal now.

“But knowing males’ minds as I do – Virgil is completely well-intentioned but I don’t think he’ll make that connection. A man is able to keep knowledge in a separate compartment. And kinda forget.”

One might point out, Hokhma’s experience will have been limited to a certain class of male, for whom “integrity” isn’t a question.

But Boaz is good at taking the high road. “You never understand this about Virgil. Spiritual care of his wife is extremely important. It’s one of his axioms. ‘Perpetual spiritual care.’ He needs that. He needs what a ruin his wife is. Because Isobel has been a ruin; and it’s part of the foundation for his integrity. If you take that away–?”

“‘Integrity,’ though, Boaz. She smiles. “There’s a reason you’re still in Purgatory. Integrity is not ‘moral superiority’ – which is what you think it is. That’s exactly what you think.”

This is an attack on him personally. But her not taking the high road isn’t going to harm his commitment to civility. “Honestly, Hokhma, in all fairness, having integrity does sometimes involve that: being morally superior. Which is no fun, Hokhma. It’s a responsibility. Some people have it, and it’s just a fact of life sometimes.”

Anyway, here comes Mischal. Up the corridor. They can tell him. And they have a lot to ask.

He enters stage-right, carrying a manila inter-Office envelope, which he puts in the dumbwaiter, and he presses the button for up. “Mischal? Virgil is going to Lake Dominy. He’s driving up there right now this morning. But he found that bouquet. He found the note from the chiropractor. It implies that his wife might be reaching pudicity[21]…”

“And today, right now,” Hokhma interrupts, “is the morning we’ve petitioned for him to meet the young woman.”

Their Angel Ordinary, however, looks steadily down at the tabletop, supporting himself with hands widely braced on it, not speaking, waiting – waiting an inordinately long time. In the room, a feeling of oscillation needs to settle at central plumb. So the two Cadets exchange a glance: a dire glance: He is going to start bringing them in now. He’s going to tell them about the whole situation.

And suddenly it’s possible not to want to hear about it. About any of it. One would rather pretend it isn’t happening, and kind of shrink a little and just go on with the usual.

“If you noticed,” the Angel begins, “you will have seen a development in Virgil’s wife’s fortunes.”

“Yes! Yes! The casino! Isn’t that a mystery!” cries Hokhma. She’s got a talent for pure dissembling. She gets up out of her chair. Goes to the fridge. “We didn’t petition any inheritance. Or ever know of any casino. Isobel’s Angels didn’t petition it either.”

“In fact,” he tells them, “Isobel’s rather large inheritance did not come from any petition here in Heaven.”

Boaz, who himself is pretty good at not hearing things, takes this moment to inform everybody, “Yes, regarding that inheritance, I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought, frankly a little money can be edifying. A sum of money can cause miseries! That’s what I thought.”

Mischal listens, but then takes a seat in his own chair.

He then goes into it. He ticks off the basic facts. A certain general Forgiveness. An inevitable Heaven/Hell Merger. Universal Amnesty then. The repentance of all the sinners. Inclusion of all creatures in Grace. The end of time. Satan is petitioning in Earth already. It’s over. It’s all entirely over. It’s going to be unimaginable. It’s justification. It’s perfection. Why don’t they just both sit down.

It’s clear neither of them is going to sit down.

“Lucifer has taken the reasonable action. He’s asking Divine forgiveness. He sees this whole thing as a big misunderstanding.”

“What whole thing?”

Mischal gestures around: Earth’s frizzy curvature – a few nearby clouds, the firmament, the galaxies near and far – all a misunderstanding.

“But,” Boaz swings up his arms. And swings them around. “Providence is supposed to conquer! Vanquish! Banish to Outer Darkness!”

Mischal closes his eyes. “Yes, this used to be a heresy. It’s a heresy no more.[22] All the sinners are offering their complete repentance. Lucifer surrenders and he announces he himself can be forgiving.”

“Forgiving? He is forgiving?”

“Unity in the whole cosmos eventually. Presumably, universal Beatitude. First thing: restoring sinners to grace in Paradise.”

Hokhma checks her fellow-Cadet. Rather than jubilation (which maybe would be the correct thing), Boaz is wearing one of his stinky squints as if he felt obscurely cheated. She’ll always be grateful for Boaz, pigheaded, literal-minded Boaz.

Because, for example, she hasn’t been in Paradise very long, and, as a Cadet, she could be pardoned for wondering – if rather selfishly – after a certain point, will there be only, strictly “Spiritual and Intellectual” pleasures? She’s hardly had a chance so far in Lower Paradise. A few ice cream bars – long hot showers – those aren’t exactly sophisticated or deep indulgences. She just got here.

Mischal is concluding, “The first small milepost here will be the day of Dissolution, five hundred days from now. Dissolution will be a fundamental change in how things are governed. It will also be the day the first Fallen Souls arrive. Arrive right here. But it’s almost five hundred days off.”

“What will happen to all of us?” Boaz wants to know. It’s an excellent question

Mischal seems not to have thought everything through yet. He admits, lifting a shoulder, “We’ll triumph.”

That makes both Cadets, after a minute, pull out their chairs and sink down.

All around, it looks like any ordinary morning in Heaven. A blue butterfly wafts upward, zigzagging.

“What will happen to Virgil?”

Their old Ordinary, staring at the floor to one side of his chair, grumbles, “Maybe he’ll live forever and he’ll never experience pain or sadness.” The Angel almost seems sarcastic. Though that would be impossible. Angels don’t have sarcasm. He says, “I really don’t know.”

Just over the rim of their cloud, the long straight section of Interstate 80 is visible, curving where it hits the mountains. The Lexus, the famous yellow speck, is headed for trouble. There he goes, Virgil Sproehnle, in all his typical competence and optimism, just as on many other such days.










Sordid Meaningless Sexual Contact



Virgil himself, meanwhile? The man who senses himself the center of the Known Universe? The one for whom the stars were first set in the sky, and the foundations of earth originally laid underfoot? He was at that moment on his way to Dominy Shores, driving up Interstate 80 like anybody, protected by thoughtlessness – “invulnerable” was the feeling, invulnerable via a vast unthinking carelessness, a preposterous carelessness. He was terrifically happy, for no special reason – because you can look around for the causes of everyday happiness and discover nothing in particular, as if “happiness” were merely a kind of daily momentum, or were just a basic biological thing like a matter of enzymes or hormones. As if maybe an organism’s basal level of “feeling happiness” is just an environmental adaptation. A hard rain overnight had pounded the coastal mountains and the whole Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada standing clear in the distance. It had broken reeds and beaten old dead leaves to flat scum and stripped the chaff off everything – so any twig, if it was still standing, meant to live and thrive and bud, and Virgil felt immortal in all his limbs, and omniscient even more than usual, on Interstate 80 in his yellow weapon, cutting off slower drivers with a lightning trust in his own unerring insights and swerves. You only live once, so you might as well not mistrust yourself. Every instant contains a trillion possible choices, leading to alternative lives, all to be ignored – teeming of memories rejected, teeming of memories postponed – all in a swarm, not quite catching up to him, he was moving so fast. Behind him, stowed behind the passenger seat, was his large fake-leather storyboard portfolio. He was going up to Dominy Shores to show Mr. Hansen the sketches for the film about the reservoir. Now it was called “An Endangered Lake” instead of the thing about God. “An Endangered Lake” was perfect. The more he thought about it, the better it was. He was an artist. Inspiration would always come.

Then quickly California locked. The valley stretch of road that used to be lonely when he was a child was suddenly swamped in malls and residential complexes all colliding at once, and every lane was blocked with traffic, from here to the Nevada border, because of course it was a beautiful day and everybody was going skiing, there would be fresh snow in Tahoe. On such a clear post-rain day, he could see the big mountain ranges many miles ahead churning in a display of geologic time, with their temporary dusting of snows. And in a surrender to the general wealthiness, he put aside his impatience and turned on the radio to start scanning with his thumb, and watched the – extremely slow – procession of cineplex theatres, regional retail outlets, fast-food restaurants, structures like jukeboxes and carnival funhouses. On the radio, the Fed announced interest rates would stay unchanged, the housing market was picking up, in the Middle East revenge still ruled, an easy pancake recipe was promised in the next hour, a poet with a new book explained her creative process, the hurricane season was coming, and scientists in labs were trying to make a lab animal live forever – and be literally deathless! – in its little aluminum cage!– by somehow keeping the genes intact in the tissues. Cell division would keep happening normally, and never get garbled: DNA replication would always be perfect, never a mutation or a mistake. So the tissues would never age. Immortality: a truly weird prospect. At least for that one particular lab animal. On her bed of cedar shavings. With her same-old meal of kibble pellets every day. And the daily refills of the water-dispenser. Deathlessness.

It took two hours’ driving – two hours of mortal patience – before his car was parked across the street from the entrance gate to Dominy Shores, in a little shopping center in the foothills, where a local morning fog was dispersing. He was sitting at a table in a coffee shop, looking through the window at his wonderful yellow UFO parked outside, the only car in the foggy lot. For he was the only customer. And there was just the one waitress.

First, he would overwhelm Sabin Hansen by the brilliance of the movie storyboards, then he would get back home and start concentrating on press releases. Begin exploring in government in Sacramento. Find a state water commission that would confess to anxiety – or, better, “alarm” – over the cracked dam. Find environmental groups with some capacity for getting genuinely alarmed. Try the campuses. Also on campuses, recruit experts.

Also, he’d been ignoring his Superfemme Biotics account.

Also, he needed to cook up some kind of phony press releases for his client Wankers the Clown.

Then it happened that the young waitress brought his salad. And Virgil was so supernaturally all-seeing today, he knew from the start, it was her spine which, condensing before his eye from the shining mist of the morning, would require his devotion, if he were reckless and stupid and weren’t married. Or if he were her age. She brought him a salad on a plate, then walked off – and it was her spine, it was her spine that educated him – she was only about medium height; but her spine – the sprung, sapling curve of it, the ambition of it, and a self-assurance – or, what was it? – something even something strictly moral in it, a resilience, an expectation. This woman! Between the shoulder and the rear, a backbone’s camber was a vitality he himself, if he were free, could actually get to, and touch, bound by the strings of the café’s green denim apron. Why must desire be an incivility? Because the obvious circumstance was, she was young and he was old and married, and he was dressed all wrong for this 18-to-25 cohort; and the actual practice of infidelity would cause worlds of inconvenience; not to mention deceit; but yet everything this morning felt to be opening up, not just his marriage, or his devotion to Aardent, but everything, painful gaps opening up, as if a man could literally feel the universe’s disloyal expansion, feel it in his chest cavity. His view of this unsuspecting young woman, planted here out-of-the-way, was sharpened by how bleary had been the passing circus of malls, and food joints and palaces of cheap treasure – or sharpened by the news of an inheritance, an impossible casino far away, everybody these days unexpectedly rich and bored – as well as boring – him and his yellow car, the Dominy Shores Homeowners Association, this café menu with its same-old choices as every other café, his wife and himself, all too prosperous. The other morning, like a building custodian, he’d carried the bouquet downstairs and disposed of it – lowering the Dumpster’s iron lid gently, so as not to make a clang, helping his wife get away with it, because he was so prudent. An encounter, a foolish encounter, with this clever-looking girl would certainly bring back an element of risk.

Well, but he picked up his fork. And speared a leaf. It was impossible in every way, lucky for him. He wasn’t twenty years old. And his heart was ponderous; his heart was “marbled” as a butcher might say of mature meat, along with the expanding universe as it loosened up. His guarantee of good fortune was that he was too cowardly to act on impulses. Or too lazy. Or too busy.

Also, he had no idea who she was. Her heart would be quite non-marbled, quite new and tough, and she would have a boyfriend, a local boyfriend, a boyfriend with attractions like a job and a, say, Pontiac Firebird. A jealous boyfriend. And a loyalty to a certain liquor, a certain beer, a certain radio station. In an instant Virgil could dislike her. Her voice-timbre alone would explode the fantasy, the moment she opened her mouth to speak, with the tones of blesséd selfishness. She no doubt lived in the gated community. With her parents, probably, in one of the big houses on the west shore. He remembered them from high school and such girls want the boy with the Pontiac and the trials he inflicts.

Then she did speak. She said, from behind the counter, something perfectly simple – “Stingy enough with the salad dressing?” – and again he was the most reckless of men. Because the human voice banishes shadows. The voice carries so much pure news, about the resonant places of the heart where amusement abides, or wisdom abides, and the girl had undertaken so lightly the bravery of a conversation, he was exposed as a middle-aged man scaly at the eyelid, middle-class. Such desires amounted to a desertion of his own life, his entire life. It was even a desertion, for example, of the “Endangered Lake” portfolio waiting in his car, its Samsonite faux leather, total cost of the proposal: $2,750, by Pictix Partners south-of-Market. In the cafe, no ambient music relieved the silence. With no other customers, it was just the two of them – his the only car in the lot – a situation that was embarrassing in his own mind, but which she perhaps didn’t notice at all, in the unfeeling way of the young. One young woman is all young women. And she is always out of reach. That is her essence, as she passes. A man is a disappointed thing. And a man might as well grow up and stop wanting every little thing, indeed it was long past time, because he already had all the things one gets, the entire package, except maybe children.

Anyway, he told told her his salad was delicious, it couldn’t be better, it was just wonderful. Then he added, “It’s like from Chez Panisse!” rather unnecessarily, because he wanted to impress her with the restaurants he knew. She would be able, easily, to dislike him just from the look of him, the 35-to-49 bracket, the loafers, the leather jacket from the L.L. Bean catalogue.

So he went on – about how freshness is the most important element in a cuisine, and what a peculiarly American luxury it is, to have such a wide variety of fresh foods in the average supermarket. And how, in poor countries, people have to make do with a crummy little heap of misshapen vegetables, and with whatever few things happen to be in season. Like in Mexico or someplace. Whereas we Americans, we can have strawberries in the winter! All kinds of stuff. Apples from Australia! Plums from Chile!

She didn’t disagree. At least not aloud. She didn’t seem skeptical. Maybe she didn’t know what Chez Panisse was, because she didn’t seem impressed, either. In front of her on the counter stood a collection of ketchup bottles, all half-empty.

And she did an amazing little trick, she uncapped one bottle and turned it upside-down and she balanced it atop another, mouth-to-mouth, creating an hourglass, through which ketchup could drip from bottle to bottle. Having made one such marriage, and putting a spell on it to make it stay, she went on to marry all ten bottles on the counter. It made five tall hourglasses. “Sheila” was the name written in felt-tip pen on a plastic wafer pinned to her apron.

Anyway, she wasn’t responding.

So he picked up his fork and went blundering onward – on the topic of Mexico, to dazzle her with his having traveled – telling her about the food in Oaxaca (not mentioning it was where he and Isobel honeymooned), in the deep southern high deserts, where old barefoot native women each morning come down into town from the hills carrying handfuls of agricultural produce to sell, the few dusty chiles their garden had yielded that day, all wrapped up in a handkerchief. And they spread their handkerchief on the pavement in downtown Oaxaca (the girl’s back was turned, where she worked at the counter, but she seemed to be listening), and they put out for display a sad little brace of wrinkled peppers, or one bag of corn mash, or a few weird blue potatoes with no uniformity of size, little warty ones paired with huge ones. Then all day they just sit there beside it, on the sidewalk, old ladies, hoping for a sale, hoping to get a few coins to take back uphill to their backyard dirt farm. Well, in such poverty, on such a small scale of industry, how can you develop a great cuisine? Healthy people need variety. Americans ought to count their blessings, he said (digging himself ever deeper, into ever more banal cliches exactly like a middle-aged man in loafers). Look in any American supermarket. Look at the big mounds of broccoli. The apples. All sorted for size and color. Look at the pyramids of tomatoes.

She knelt at the refrigerator under the counter and pulled out a heavy plastic lidded thing. She said, “…But I do love Mexican food, though.”

Then he knew from her tone. She was one of the anti-globalization kids, grow local, eat organic. Her gently contradicting him rebuilt her whole personality – and he reversed direction and began to make allowances for the possibility of a Mexican cuisine – at which point she interrupted him:

“I happen to know the Mexican ladies you mean. Or rather Zapotec ladies. I lived in Oaxaca for a couple years when I was a girl, when I was younger. I know very well that scene around the zocalo in town. I was with my stepfather and my mother, and we lived in a village. I thought exactly the same thing about those ladies who come down from the hills from their, they call it, milpa. I thought it was pretty sad. But then we moved to France. We moved to Provence, you know, which is admired for its distinguished cusine. And we lived on a farm there for a year. And you know what I realized, it’s exactly the same in Provence. The same as in Mexico. There will be the farmer in the little town” – (Virgil adjusted his most open-minded face) – “There will be the guy, in the little stone Provencale village, and he’ll have a handful of asparagus. Dirty asparagus. He’s gotta leave the mud on. He’ll lay them out on a table all muddy. Asparagus is like a religion there in the spring. It’s like, the Sunday paper’ll have a special asparagus section, I mean a special pull-out section, about asparagus. They’ll be just what he got from the ground on this one day. But he treats them like he hates to part with them. And he picks out six good ones and makes you promise you’ll only use a little oil and herbs. It’s the very same scale in France, the same scale as the Zapotec ladies.”

She was not only interested in this, she was garrulous and possibly a little dotty and pedagogic. There was that glint.

If she was peculiar, the idea of love would become more dangerously particular, not just the average fantasy. And Virgil’s feeble soul, his craven soul flew straight to the thought of his wife back home, sad clever Isobel.

“—And I really find, like in France in the spring, when you’re stuck with what’s available, that’s when you invent something. Do you cook? I find even when you have something that’s starting to get moldy, or you need to use something you found that day – I mean, I have friends who don’t have any refrigeration. Truly. Their eggs and cheese and butter and milk are, you know, just sitting there. And they cook as if they were in a great restaurant. So I’m just saying,” she finished, with a shrug. “—about American cuisine.”

But she kept going. “Americans are hardly going to eat dandelion greens or get weeds by the railroad tracks, which is something a Provençale cook would do in a minute. Americans, they just go down to Dean & DeLuca. For more expensive stuff.”

She smiled. End of sermon then, apparently.

Unseen by this Sheila, one of the five stacked ketchup bottles had begun to leak. At the juncture of its joined orifices, a red lip was emerging.

He’d been holding his breath during much of her long speech. He said, “What’s Dean & DeLuca?”

She lifted ladle-fuls of macaroni from one container. And whapped them down in another. “Dean & DeLuca,” she said, unhappily, “…is a store.”

He didn’t feel like warning her about the escape of ketchup behind her back – any kind of trouble was interesting now, because he was throughly married and nothing would happen – while she went on, “I find in my own kitchen, if you ever start cooking like the way poor people do, you find that’s exactly what they do at Chez Panisse. Use what’s there. Use what you’ve got. Don’t complicate it. All the old complicated Parisian haute cuisine: that’s always been strictly for tourists. Paris was always for tourists, even in, whatever, medieval times. And rich people.”

SHEILA, the name on the plastic pin, was wrong-sounding, as if waitressing were a disguise she’d put on out of a locker in the back room. She had a prominent narrow nose, olive skin, a convex push to her mouth, full lips over the arch of oversized teeth, and a break in her voice, a competitive intelligent squeak consonant with the discordant chime of the eyes, eyes that were slightly crossed-looking because of her nose or her intelligence. Something of class, but gene-deep, was in awkwardness-plus-self-confidence, in the poise of the celebrated spine; and the directness of the cracked gaze.

A happy effectiveness in the world. There it was: “class.” That elusive thing, most fascinating to a marketing man. Class abides physically in the flesh as well as the mind, a spiritual assurance, a fixity, evident partly in her having calm opinions about how vulgar Paris is, but also in just the way she moved around physically. Upper-classiness has an assumptive quality he had been taking note of, over the years while he climbed out of Terra Linda and began to encounter San Francisco money, on the ladder-rungs of the peculiar California class system, or world money, or educated money. Because it wasn’t “money.” This young woman wouldn’t care in the slightest about the kinds of things his mom, Evelyn Sproehnle, cared about, like the white leather couch or the Hawaiian vacation, eventually her cosmetic surgery and her special Hermes scarf, sitting at the bank’s corner desk one fine day. Or the things a rumored Louisiana casino would buy. Chinese jade. An XJ-class Jaguar. Why did she have a job waitressing in a coffee shop? She might be between semesters. Or her father – she’d mentioned a stepfather – might be getting old, and might need her around.

“Tell me something. For what reason does your stepfather move around between villages in France and Mexico?”

“He’s a scientist. He’s an agriculturist. He works in sustainable agriculture, so I’m afraid you happened to hit a topic of mine. Sorry.” She turned to her leaking ketchup-bottle tower, and with a lick of her dishcloth she eliminated the escaping sauce. Then she refastened the open kiss between the bottles.

In awe of the balanced bottles – heavy, faceted glass not toppling – Virgil said, “How do you… do that?”

“They stick,” she confided, making little mouths of her thumb-crotches, pressing them together. “The rims. They have old sticky-stuff, so they’re…” she sought a word, and blushed, “…sticky.”

Now Virgil was in trouble and began speaking from inside an isolating globe, hearing his own voice as muggy, “I suppose you live in Dominy Shores?”

It was obvious he was married. Here was the wedding ring right here in the open, he was in the “safe” category, there would be no outcome to this. He was totally ignoring his salad. He had shifted his attention upon this girl in a way that struck him as positively predatory, so he got his fork going again.

“I would never live in that gated community,” she said. “Those people are the exact opposite. They all go around in white shoes. They get as far as possible from the origin of their food and don’t know how to take pleasure.”

It sounded like a sentence translated from the French – wise, friendly with sexual possibility – he had gone over the brink precisely because it was safe to. Wedding ring in plain sight, he said, “It has been my observation that someone who’s good with food is good in all other things. Knowing how to, as you say, take pleasure, it involves art. Or doing anything well. Just being able to care about what’s in front of you at the moment. Involves seeing what’s right in front of you, right here,” his hands were holding a gift of empty air, the size of a loaf of bread, or the breadth of a woman’s hips. He put his hands away. Wisely, she’d turned away, to her refrigerator with her heavy plastic casket of macaroni. He, too, reverted. He stabbed seriously into his salad.

He added, “It involves being authentic. Just being in the room with another human, or with a – whatever, a piece of art, a piece of sculpture or anything – it involves opening yourself up for change. Know what I mean?”

It seemed a continuous logical next step, not at all a switch in topic, when she responded, “You’re up here on business.”

“What makes you think I don’t live in Dominy Shores?”

She nodded at his appearance. “Bay Area,” she said. And she added, “Your car outside. The city parking sticker.”

He said, though his greedy mouth was filled with a folding bundle of lettuce, “You are attentive.”

That, too, was overly personal, and they both knew it. She had her big macaroni spoon to rinse at a sink. In a swoon he blurted, “My wife,” and then finished, inanely, “has a parking sticker, too! But she needs it! She parks on the street. In San Francisco, I mean.”

Her attention, next, could only go to her ketchups, taking apart the balanced bottles. Virgil, forkful after forkful, put his salad away. They’d looked into each other’s eyes when he’d spoken of her “attentiveness.” Now, it seemed sure, realism and good judgment had won out. Still, across all barriers of background and gender and age, he will always have had this gift, of courteous esteem. So would she. It was obvious she lived a rich life already. But she would also have the knowledge that somebody serious had admired her. From behind his picket fence admired her with genuine insight. This is the best way anything works out.

“Anyhow, yes. I’m in marketing, in public relations, and I’m up here because I’ve been hired by some people in Dominy Shores who want their dam rebuilt. You know they’re releasing pressure at Lake Dominy?”

“Are they?”

She’d finished dismantling the ketchup project. Some of the upper bottles weren’t quite clear yet, but she was taking them down anyway. The magic act was over.

“I’ll tell you.” Virgil chewed his salad for a while, recovering. “I’ll tell you what some of the residents in there believe. This is funny. They believe they are the victims of eco-sabotage. They believe that radical extremist types who live at higher parts of the Artemisia River… Do you know the Artemisia River? Are you from around here?”

“You mean the river that goes into Lake Dominy?” She recapped all the ketchups. The empties started landing in a bin back there.

“They have an idea that ecoterrorists in the mountains have bred a kind of algae that will destroy their dam. Gene-splicing ecoterrorists.”

She didn’t think that was funny, not at all. – It was a deadening disappointment. How could she lack laughter? She was so smart, how could she be numb right there? Eroticism went dead because it’s adjacent to a sense of humor. Now everything would be safe. In the end, exactly zero prickle of electricity had been generated by all this secret rubbing. During a decade and a half of marriage he’d never been seriously tempted. And maybe around thirty-eight, it was the crown of the hill.

“So I’m supposed to provide PR for a lobbying campaign in Sacramento and Washington. To have the dam rebuilt. You may not be aware: dams are unpopular now, all of a sudden. I’m no old-timer, but I remember when dams were, like, the cat’s pajamas. Dams were clean power and so on. Fashionable thinking certainly does change. It’ll flip 180 degrees. People who monitor public opinion call it pole assertion. Goes in cycles. It actually averages out as a sine wave. Positive, negative, positive, negative. Love dams, hate dams.”

She wasn’t listening, her mind had flown away, she was moving through chores and looking impatient. He’d lost her. Which was all for the better.

“So,” he went on, “There are all these people in the upper elevations. They don’t use electricity. They – I don’t know – eat fungus. And they hate infrastructure. They don’t like roads. And dams or utilities…” He was seeing himself unpleasantly reflected in her silence. “But they do have political influence. They never even see the dam, up where they are. They’re way upstream from it.”

She turned and stood, presenting herself, but with her eyes lowered, and she said, “You know, let me tell you something. I never did actually go to college but I’ve always been interested in public relations, as a career. My shift here ends in a half-hour.” She looked agonized by this proposition. “I’m new, I just started, but my boss is nice, she’s starting me off slow. She’ll be back soon, and I’ll be free for a whole hour. Maybe I can buy you a cup of coffee? Someplace besides here?” (Sabin Hansen could wait, the appointment wasn’t specific, and she is obviously a young woman of deep decency and honesty.) “I could pick your brain? Learn all about public relations? Can you wait a half hour till I get off? I know it isn’t much, but I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, just to learn about the public relations business.”

He would be helpless with her. She was a young woman who – she might not know this yet, but she was the kind who could literally get anything in life she wanted, he was out of his depth, despite the age difference, he was out of his league. She wouldn’t be free for another half hour and his mouth was stuffed with lettuce, but, while he chewed, he was already patting his pocket for the car keys.













Sheila Carmel could see that Mr. Sproehnle was a certain kind of thoughtless and therefore unsound, unpredictable man. It couldn’t be mistaken, if she kept observing him, it was visible in his mannerisms – this would-be philanderer – he was a man who had reached a certain point. A certain point in his life. He was now liable to foolish impulsive choices, it radiated in his hands, and it was in the steepness of his face while he drove. But he didn’t know it. That was the dangerous part, he seemed to think he was fine, he thought he was in control, he thought he was normal. Normal was the whole point, with him. With his type. In that way, he was an instance of a certain kind of man lacking any inward language to think about his own life. In this present situation, he was apparently willing to throw everything away in an afternoon – the marriage to some corporate wife in a (probably) white tennis skirt, the kids in private schools, probably a toy-sized mansion among others, the country club existence – all the positions a man like him had worked his way into for years – all imperiled, on this drive with a cafe waitress, herself. A basic foundation was missing in someone like this. He steered with one wrist atop the wheel, jaw thrust into the coming landscape, unseeing of anything. Society hands over power to the selfish, the blissfully selfish. Selfishness and ignorance – that magical combination! – will protect a man like him from noticing anything, thus from loving anything. This was the species that would colonize the Sierra, with their houses, because they don’t love anything or notice anything, and lovelessness furnishes their special strength, their special adaptability. They can conquer the forest so easily because they don’t see it.

Facing him across the counter at the cafe, she’d perceived only the overlapping upper lip, the long narrow nose. That rare fraternity – the long-nosed and overlapping-lipped – have always had special privileges in her heart. (She can be such a spoiled child still; a special spoiledness being the lasting gift of her mother.) Seldom-met aristocrat, he of the beaky lip will have special privileges to provoke a pang that’s almost racial, or biological, or familial: a desire that forgives. Then, Ecoterrorists, he’d said, with a light mockery, while raking over his salad with a fork. He would call Bob a criminal.

But she’d seen. She’d seen him at the river dumping vials. During the years while she was living with him in the very same cabin, Robert Newton had mutated into, perhaps, a wrong-headed man: that was the horror-movie revelation that lit up her own stepfather with a lightning-flash. Along the entire river, there must be many cement structures, all downstream between here and the ocean, bridges and piers and foundations to be destroyed by an algae. During the past year, he had been studying the river along its length, compiling a map on his laptop. He’d sent graduate students down in kayaks, to photograph and catalogue. He bought high-resolution satellite pictures from a website. Did he use his own credit-card number, or the Seed Bank’s card? That was one thing she could check. She could go home and start going through the old MasterCard bills. Like a detective.

The idea was impossible and unthinkable, but belief attacked from within. She’d seen him. He was dumping organisms. That night when he came home to the cabin, he set the shipping case down on the floor by the door and he made no effort to sneak it to the closet. She put it away herself. On the scuffed aluminum was the Postal Service sticker providing “SPECIAL RESEARCH EXEMPTION from USDA Phytosanitary Quarantines for any and all shipments.” He had NSF money. He got Lily money. He got university money. He was important. He’d been put up for the National Academy. Well, she could go up and ask him. That was one thing she could depend on. She could go straight to him. He was a deeply single-minded man. He wasn’t a sneak. There would be an explanation.

Mr. Virgil Sproehnle, gripping the steering wheel, said, “I don’t know what to tell you. Public relations is like anything. It’s largely about selling yourself, unfortunately. Like most things.”

In her sickness she watched the passing forest. They were climbing a mountain road that whipped this way and that, leading toward a restaurant in Hartleyville, to discuss public-relations careers supposedly.

She felt too sick to bring up a response. She offered, faking as she could, “Public relations is the business of changing minds. Right? Essentially?”

Mr. Sproehnle frowned, for a little interval. “You have to know your target segment. And kind of love your target segment. And then you work in sympathy with it, rather than trying to ‘change’ it. You have to be zen and Be the target.” With a wave he gestured to the back seat where he had a portfolio he was proud of, labeled AN ENDANGERED LAKE. “Sympathy is your main skill. Love your demographic. Love the people out there. Truly. Love all sides in the debate. Love everybody.”

“How do they know it’s algae?”

He looked blankly at the oncoming road.

She said, “I mean, how did they get that idea in the first place? Who told them it was algae?”

This wasn’t the subject Mr. Sproehnle preferred. He ruffled, refocusing.

He said, “I think the police had biologists. Or maybe the FBI. I don’t know. It’s federal jurisdiction. So maybe FBI.”

At this moment, she wanted him to turn the car around. And take her straight back to her Volvo, parked behind the café, where she’d been told to park it so its dinginess wouldn’t scare away customers, its fenders spattered with the red laterite mud of the upper elevations, its dashboard and backseat cluttered like a homeless person’s car, the twenty-year-old Volvo of a terrorist’s accomplice. Go alone directly back home to North Liberty – the long winding road – and tell Bob. Find him at the schoolhouse or find him at home. The FBI had analyzed the algae. He had endangered lives. The lab he used in Reykjavik, as well as the one in Kansas, both kept records of clients and their experiments and the results. Which the police could get into easily. The celebrated geneticist Dr. Robert Newton.

“I actually like to think it’s artistic,” Mr. Sproehnle went on in a renewed flow, “It’s artistic because I have to sympathize with people and go into my imagination. I have to project myself into the mind of somebody out there in the target segment. I really can’t have any belief I’m superior to anybody. There’s no snob-factor, in real PR. So what if they wear yellow sweaters? So what if they live in gated communities? See, I can take some old guy who lives in Dominy Shores and wears yellow sweaters, and those people are my first audience. Because they’re the customer. Maybe my actual, eventual target is some congressman. But my first target is my client.” He narrowed his eyes with almost a fondness, envisioning his target out there standing in the middle of the road ahead. She had to watch him with a fascinated dread. In profile, Virgil Sproehnle’s nose was arched. His adam’s apple. His hard pemmican forearms. He had one of those chopped-off haircuts like you see on busts of Roman politicians.

“I like to imagine I’m actually inside the body of the guy in my target audience. This is how I do PR. I’m one of those voodoo people and I shape-shift. In the night, I turn into a wolf or a raven, you know, and I enter the skin of a kind of ‘Guy in a Yellow Cashmere Sweater’ with two new Cadillacs parked in the garage. Then I can see how it feels, to be him. I literally do this. I do. In my office I stand there imagining I’m holding a martini, wearing an expensive sweater, looking out my window at the ninth fairway. It’s like being in drag. Then I can conceivably start to love the guy. Because everybody has some… you know, some justifications. And some weaknesses and things he loves. And I’ll tell you: your body is where you think, not your mind. I have to make my body be a rich old golfer’s body. And then I can think like him. I do: I literally sashay around my office pretending I’m the client, whoever. PR is a matter of building bridges, by sympathies. I create harmony and confluence. That’s what I do for a living.”

He took his eyes off the road for a minute to glance at her.

She’d been wrong, he wasn’t rich and powerful, he was more like an ambitious junior-executive, and his attractiveness came from his being vulnerable, it was one of his weapons, a vulnerability – and also a kind of genuine forlornness. Though he was a married man. There was the wedding ring. He made no effort to hide it. At the same time, a more fundamental part of her mind was weighing a mystery of loyalty: she would stand by her stepfather, even if he had broken the law. You don’t realize how much love there is. Then suddenly bonds tighten.

Bob wouldn’t photograph well. There would be newspaper pictures. First thing, she’d trim his hair, on a kitchen chair outside the back door. The horrible Sacramento TV news would show video-snippets: the dirt driveway entrance with the broken ranch gate, the shabby cabin, the pile of wood scraps out front. She felt weak. Mr. Sproehnle, wrestling the wheel of his toy car, watched the roadway ahead, where it writhed. He kept climbing its rope, manfully.

Then again he glanced at her and he concluded his little spree of boasting, “…Anyway.”

His face showed a hurt intelligence.

She’d been way off: he wasn’t the least bit powerful, he was somebody’s employee, a man climbing the ladder, a servant of, as he said, men in expensive sweaters. His goal in life was probably a big house. And a better car. And trophy women. Going out for a drink with a coffee-shop waitress. How had she sleepwalked into this situation? Who knows what he thought?

He added, “Maybe you… have to be back at work soon?”

He had noticed.

“There is something I have to do, in fact,” she said. “Could you take me back to the cafe?”

“Sure. Absolutely. I understand,” he said, while not understanding at all. He was spring-loaded to relent because he was ashamed. Ashamed of the things he’d assumed. He was married, and his wife was part of his deal with life, his particular bargain.

He was a man with no ground to stand on. No foundation. Life, for this man, had always been a free, entrepreneurial hallucination. Now, on this day like any other day, he had reached a point of being obviously desperate, obviously bankrupt in his heart. He said, “I’ll find a place to turn around.” He was potentially a better man than he himself thought. Potentially a better man than his education had trained him to be. So society misuses people. What could be wrong with his marriage, if he was capable of flirting on an afternoon? Maybe there was nothing extraordinarily wrong and he was just an average guy who lacks ethics, and that’s how guys are and you have to get used to it.

“I’m sorry,” she told him. “I have an appointment. I did allow this appointment to slip my mind. I have to be someplace.” Her heart kept running too high and she had to get home.

With a lift of his jaw into the oncoming scenery, he affirmed that he understood completely. Why should she have a soft spot for mistaken males? What is it that’s so charming when they’re bumbling and groping and regretting? His eyes now heavy-lidded with an utterly fake savoir faire, he slowed the car to a stop along the roadside, checked his rearview mirror, and swung in a U-turn, whirling to the opposite shoulder. “Got a good little turning radius,” he bragged, while his front wheel went over the road shoulder and dropped in a ditch.

His car was hung up. “Oop,” he said, “I can get this out of here.”

She knew he couldn’t. He was hung up. Underfoot she had felt the axle settle on the dirt. It was a little suburban car with about six inches of clearance.

And he knew it, too, because rather than putting the car in reverse and spinning his wheels, he locked the parking brake and turned off the engine. In the silence, he re-strangled his grip on the steering wheel, and directed a query at her, “Like they can’t build a decent road?”

“I didn’t build the road,” she said, speaking within the strange tranquillity. The sunny woods all around. Birdsong. The air was still. The sun was hot. This was a seldom-used highway. Out here, there would be no cell phone reception to call a tow truck. She’d folded her arms. She was wearing a denim skirt, a long-sleeved knit top with an O-neck, and flat sandals. Her athletic shoes were in her purse.

Once long ago, with her mother back in Connecticut, this same thing had happened. It was before any sign of her mother’s illness. The mother and daughter were alone – and in the midst of a U-turn the beloved old car had hung up. They’d freed it at last by piling up rocks and soil under the tire, to give it traction. They were on a back road outside New Milford in her mother’s old Mercedes, mother and daughter scraping heaps of dirt together with flat rocks, all in a misty Connecticut drizzle – and it was a miserable afternoon but the memory lived inside her now as the best thing she and her mother had ever done, the two women on their knees, tucking rocks under the tires, ruining their shoes, even quarreling, but working together, it was the best thing that ever happened to her.

Virgil Sproehnle, still keeping a grip on the steering wheel, started to rant very quietly, “A decent road is engineered. It’s got a certain allowable tilt, where they bank the curves. It’s all to do with speed limit. And engineers have a certain allowable radius for how sharp the curves can be. But this little road, it just dribbles around, it just dribbles back and forth, it’s got no shoulder, and you have to slam on the brake for every turn because these country people have no engineers.”

He looked at Sheila, then looked away, and took his hands off the wheel and clasped them in his lap, regretting his tone of voice.

“Come on, we can pile up dirt and rocks under the tire,” she said, opening her door.

He just sat there. “You do expect a road to have engineering.”

“People like you,” she said.

She didn’t want to go further into that.

But then she did go on, while still sitting there and not getting out, “What you want is big wide roads and sixty-mile speed limits. You know what you’re talking about? When you talk about banking the road? And engineering roads with curves?” she went on with the accumulating tingle that was a symptom of one of her tirades coming on. “You’re talking about airplanes, basically: a certain velocity for a certain banked curve. You don’t want to be on a road. You don’t want to be anywhere: You want to be in an airplane.” The tingle of her own preeminence was also, unfortunately, the tingle of of her own physical beauty. Which she hated herself for. The man made her self-conscious. It was her own fault. She’d lost composure, but only because she had been totally in the dark about what had been going on at home all this time and she had to get straight home. And find out. Now this Virgil Sproehnle was cringing slightly – she’d frightened him – and she looked away at the roadside and said, “Come on. Do you have some kind of tool?” This situation felt like being his wife. Or if she were his wife, she would never let him end up so dishonest. Whoever the wife was, she allowed him, in his life, to travel around inside his own shiny capsule. Did they never converse? The marriages of corporate types are unfathomable. People without ethics.

He said, “That’s a deep ditch. You’ll never pile up enough dirt.”

She got out of the car. “I’ll tell you about an old road like this. It’s probably an old mining road. It might have been a deer trail long ago, with Indians using it, too. Like, deer nosed it out first, so that’s how it got ‘engineered.’ This road is in the land. I mean, it’s not ‘somewhere else.’ Which is where you want to be. You say ‘dribbles.’ Okay. But you get the smells and the heat and the,” she was tired of her own correct opinions, “You get the birds and the bees. Why don’t we just use this,” she said, taking the grip-handle of his big portfolio AN ENDANGERED LAKE. “Put your movie under the tire.”

He didn’t even look, knowing she wasn’t serious. He popped his car door. There was one lucky thing, though: This particular Virgil Sproehnle seemed a not-very-insightful person. He wasn’t going to see anything suspicious in an algae bloom.

On the gravel beside the car, he stood and looked in both directions, up the road and down the road. Nobody was coming by.

She didn’t want to be around when the day should come when a man like this spun out permanently. One doesn’t want to be responsible. Because a man of no foundations, getting powerful, is going to spin apart sooner or later. She got snagged in putting back the portfolio, because her big canvas shoulder bag was in the way – ladybug fly away home – and when she set the bag on the fender, it fell.

Everything in the bag spilled. Bob was leading a secret life, perhaps a criminal life or an “insane,” delusional, schizophrenic kind of life, and her purse was spilling in the ditch. It rolled downslope so all its contents came out, a running shoe, receipts, coins, birding binoculars, hairbrush, footies, and (foremost, of course!) the dead raccoon she’d collected from the road surface that morning. It rolled free of its newspaper-wrapping. A young fellow, it lay on its back, the needle-sharp teeth bared in a death-snarl.

She got down to start gathering it back in. But he came around the car to help, and then he stopped.

He said, “Oh, there’s a raccoon.”

She wasn’t going to confirm that he was accurate.

“Wow,” he said. “Is it your raccoon?”

“It’s,” she said, and let him have it, “…roadkill.” This morning she’d seen the car ahead of hers when it batted its flying soft body away. She’d almost been late for her café shift, because it took a little while making sure it was dead, not just stunned. The body when she lifted it off the roadside, then, was limp, and rather dear. But now it was harder, from the café refrigerator, resistant to being rolled. She was knocking it with a ball of crumpled newspaper, wanting to get it back into its own paper wrappings, but it just kept rocking.

He told her, “You’re a naturalist.”

He had thrust his hands down in his pockets.

She explained, “It’s been dead a few hours. I got it this morning on the road from North Liberty. And it’s certainly cleaner than anything in that restaurant or the meat you buy.”

“Oh!” he said. “You live up there!”

Yes she lives up there, with the shy, backward forest folk who live hand-to-mouth. And destroy dams. Let him think whatever he wants. She wanted to get home. Home to Bob and ask. Find out. “Get some rocks, would you, to put under that wheel.”

He didn’t go anywhere, he kept on watching. Maybe he thought, now, they lived on government food stamps. She stopped being dainty and took it by its tail and laid it out on the open page, to roll it up, on the NYSE stock quotes.

He said, “I’ll get a plastic bag or something.”

But he wasn’t going anywhere. He was in a dazed state: pity or revulsion or something.

“Don’t bother. This is fine,” she said. “I may eat it raw as a snack.”

“Well, is that okay for it? To just go in your purse like that?”

On her knees, she paused, looking at his loafer-shod feet. “At my house we’re not vegetarians, we eat meat, I’m an excellent cook, and this is organic meat, it’s a wild creature that’s grown up on a pure organic diet. I make a cassoulet.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me. I’m against industrial food, pesticides, hormones, genetically modified things. I’m with you. You’re preaching to the choir. My belief is, like the sheer amount of petroleum and greenhouse-gas emissions it takes to make one – you name it – pork chop. At the Marina Safeway now they sell all kinds of organic, wild, free-range whatever, non-GMO. They have a whole section.” He poked around behind the car seats, and he pulled out one of those flimsy plastic bags printed Thank You. He rattled it at her. “Wouldn’t you just feel better if it were in this?”

He let the bag fall – parachute-like to the ground beside her – then he backed away again. She ignored it, the raccoon was already rolled up. She was scratching up a few of her coins from the dirt, and paper stubs and purse junk.

“So, what’s a cassoulet?”he said, merrily.

She did go ahead and use the plastic bag, for extra wrapping.

“A cassoulet,” she could hardly finish the sentence for a stab of grief, of fear, in her very home, “is a white bean thing.”


“With thyme and saffron.”

She’d spoken of the saffron so their poor little cabin would seem “gourmet,” as if it would exonerate her. And exonerate the well-known geneticist Robert Newton. And make today a day like any other.


At last, he half-turned. “Well, I’ll just let you do that,” he said. Yet he lingered watching. Then he tore himself away and went around to the other side of the car. “I’m sure somebody will come by. I’ll flag ’em down.”

“This car is easy to dig out. Don’t flag anybody down.”

But he would end up getting a tow truck. Most people were like him.

He was looking up the road, and down the road.

“Anyway,” he said, “what’s it like up there?” He clasped his hands and put them on top of his head. Hanging his elbows out. “Up in North Liberty.”

Now he was trying to make small talk.

He wouldn’t get anything out of her, at least not on the topic of her own personal life. She had to go home, she was more in danger than she ever wanted to think about, and her shoulder bag was almost back together again, so she stood up. Something was coming around the bend. It was a likely-looking pickup truck. So he would have his ride to a tow. Fine. And she would get to her own car, and get home.












A certain part of the fruit on any vine – a certain fixed, average proportion – is encoded to fail, to end as bitter green knobs. And so with all creatures, men and women, girls and boys. Virgil Sproehnle in particular, while arrogant, is imbued, too, with a sense of his own unworthiness. His personal unworthiness always provided a solid basis for his lifespan. Nevertheless, Hokhma, all the while, has felt herself to be the only Guardian consistently working for love and bravery, the only one consistently counseling rashness.

Because Virgil could have learned bravery. And seen himself be brave. It might have happened today on a mountain road. Now, as if anything good could possibly still come of this debacle, she keeps on watching the scene of failure at the mountain roadside. He’s standing on the center line waiting for a car he can flag down, while inwardly thanking all his lucky stars – for his good fortune and for his own personal wisdom and insight, too – in having steered clear of a mess. He thinks himself wise and lucky, because now he can go on being exactly who he always was.

A pickup truck, on the road below, passes them by and then pulls to a stop and waits while the hitchhikers come shambling up behind and stow their things in the truck bed, Virgil his portfolio, Sheila her big ugly purse. It’s not even a purse, it’s just a bookbag, cloth laundered limp, advertising a “Soil Microbe Jamboree, July 8-16, Urbana-Champaign, IL” and covered with the logos of a lot of academic book publishers. The poor girl, she used to walk on Fifth Avenue.

The two of them disappear inside the cab. The truck pulls away from the roadside and gathers speed – on the trip downhill to a gas station.

“—Well, it’s ruined,” Hokhma says.

Boaz purrs, in his seated position at the table. Boaz, when he’s near a state of pleasure and/or justification, actually does emit a kind of purr, swelling at the eyelids, swelling at the throat.

Anyway, he won’t meet Hokhma’s gaze, readjusting cloth folds over his knee, pinkie lifted.

“What exactly,” asks Hokhma, “did you communicate to Sheila Carmel’s Angels?”

That inquiry makes him frown, and after a minute he lifts his voice in his gospel-preacher quaver, “Hokhma, things aren’t meaningless. If Virgil is going to be tempted, let his temptations be of a noble kind, not the ignoble kind.”

Something has to happen, Boaz. If nothing happens—” she holds out both arms, then drops them. “Now he’ll walk away thinking he’s just an exemplary human being. You’ll have a Virgil who has gone through life in Earth without ever…,” she points down into Earth. Down there all the richest colors of experience exist, compared to the Afterlife, where a shade of ivory tends to predominate. That and a Wedgewood blue. Those two colors are about as intense as it gets up here.

In the dumbwaiter shaft, the cables are moving. A remote high clank, then a fast slithering of the ropes. It will be another message. It will probably be more specific, more detailed, about the end of Heaven, or the End of Time. The realization always seems fresh: that this existence is only temporary now. That everything soon will get its comeuppance, supposedly.

She sings out, “Now where did Mischal go?”

Of course they both know, he went off to his hammock with his new Spring Seed Catalogues.

And they both know that she’s voicing the question nice and loud and stagy, because it will make the way easier for them to snoop into the envelope. The elevator is coming from high places – the vertical cables whiz in the window swaying – it’s sure to be another green envelope. The cables are taking forever, gliding in the shaft – then her heart breaks freshly and she turns on Boaz, “Virgil Sproehnle was supposed to err today. We agreed on that. There was going to be passion, and indiscretion.”

“You’ll notice the Today Board says encounter. Encounter with Sheila, that’s what was petitioned. And, may I add, he has committed adultery, in effect.”

She has to think for a minute. “Oh. Yes. ‘Adultery in his heart,’ yuck, iggh.” Boaz has no understanding of sin’s dynamics. Virgil Sproehnle’s will have been a life where there was no suffering. She turns away – the dumbwaiter is taking forever – and she goes back out, to stand on their small white beach and have a look down.

Below on the mountainside, the pickup carries the man and woman on the descending road. Inside the cab of that truck, silence governs. On the cab’s bench seat, Virgil’s thigh is carefully minced away from Sheila’s.

“…In the end, Boaz, you’ll make him end up like you.”

Boaz, for his part, gives that idea a little fair consideration. He’d have to admit, yes, he has worked hard to instill in Virgil a respect for woman, and for the temple that is her body, even despite his fellow-Cadet’s notion that a woman might have no such self-esteem.

“Hokhma? I promise you. I hereby predict, before this day is over, Virgil will loathe himself. He’ll be in moral torment.”

“No, he’ll just be more smug.”

The dumbwaiter box at last sinks into view.

There it is. Another green envelope.

“He’s in his hammock with his seed catalogues.”

“—So let’s call him.”

Neither of them does, though.

This time they don’t have the explicit excuse of his napping.

Hokhma licenses him with a toss of the hand, and Boaz does raise his voice calling down the corridor. And when Mischal answers, he answers instantly – and he arrives with a promptness that is unlike him. Because he seems to have some idea. Something unhappy is going to be in the message. – There’s even a pause, as if he’d rather not open it.

The message is, again, only a few sentences on a page. – But Mischal pores over it long, trying to penetrate some impossible surface. All the while, gradually, he sits down. Lowering himself into his chair.

There’s nothing for the Cadets to do but wait – while their Angel Ordinary, then, slips the page back into its envelope and presses it against his bosom and sags, deflates, chin on chest, seeming to crumple around his scowl – because he’s falling asleep! Can he be dozing off? While sitting in his molded-plastic chair? The scowl begins to soften to a smile, thinning – it’s a smile dissolving in the whole Universe. Then the Angel rises from his chair. His eyes are closed. “…Lucifer’s benediction in precincts of Heaven.”

He is simultaneously present in the Empyrean.[23] He has been summoned, and the Cadets find themselves backing away. The envelope falls to the floor. He’s going to leave it behind. So they’ll be able to see what it says.

He sings as he lifts away, “Pass Belial and Lucifugé and Sataniacha the Commander. Pass, thou minions of the Lost Hosts, even the guardian Maalik. Pass, Ashtoreth and the Fallen Thrones, Essas, Acaos, thou Distressed Principalities: Alexh, Zabulon, Nephtalius, Cham, Uriel, and Achas, pass thou, all the pageant of Lucifer’s dark army, even Abaddon, even Munkir and Nekir and Sacha Elmarid, the incubus Asmodeus,” he grows ever more radiant in a buoyancy as he eclipses the doorway. His form is being translated. They’re only parvenu Cadets, on their first tour, yet here they are standing in the very midst of Eschatological diplomacy. The great Angel expands toward the door, blind to this transitory place, his gaze elsewhere. For his gaze is shining upon the radiance of all history.

Then the Angel Mischal is like the sun. And then he is gone.

Hokhma picks up the letter quick as a squirrel and starts relieving it of its envelope. She scans down:


“…Plans for the abolition of Hell are halted. Negotiations are broken, in a dispute arising from the maxim ab origine:

‘Darkness Shall Never Be Vanquished Unto the Uttermost, Lest There Be No Light.’

All Reconciliation is revoked, all forgiveness hereby withdrawn, Hell restored to Misery, all until further notice.

Mischal, your Relegation is rescinded. Your Office as emissary commences from this moment.”


Without looking at Boaz, she sits down in the chair (the same physical chair that Mischal just exited so supernaturally). And then she does look up at Boaz.

At least one part of of that message is clear. No Merger.

No invasion by reformed criminals in these quiet groves, these airborne beaches.

A selfish part of her – a totally unrealistic part of her – (the part of her that explains her being, still, in Purgatory) – feels that this is not altogether unhappy news because she hasn’t had much time in Paradise herself, yet.

And frankly just the smell sometimes – nobody has mentioned this, but the smell coming from the distant smoky, blackened mouth, where lately – if you go around and look down – lately the billions of disgruntled creatures, in an apiary black mass, are actually visible, teeming, ambitious to migrate to Heaven – and sometimes an updraft carries a hint of exposed flesh-rot even from so far away. A lot has been stirred up down there already, that hadn’t been stirred for many millennia.

She asks Boaz, “What is the meaning of saying ‘Darkness shall not be vanquished’?’ Not vanquished ever?”

Boaz doesn’t answer.

“Darkness has to be vanquished. Is that not an assumption? This seems to say darkness will never be vanquished.”

“Don’t think about it, Hokhma. It’s metaphysics.”[24]

The idea bothers Boaz slightly, too. She’s got a point. If all darkness were banished, how could that injure light? Light, then, would be simply everywhere. There would be nothing but light. What is the difficulty in that? Banishing darkness is the whole idea, is it not?

Then she does a strange thing – she gets up out of her chair – and she does something Boaz notices and finds peculiar. He actually finds it quite uncalled for. She balls up the green missive and throws it down the dumbwaiter chute – so it will fall infinitely to the lowest regions and perdition – though she could have just tossed it anywhere, or simply left it lying around, which would have been more considerate. Because after all, it’s a fairly interesting artifact from the Empyrean. He might have liked looking at it.

She folds her arms.

He keeps an eye on her.

So she has to come out with it.

“It said something else, too.”

“The note did?”

“It said there is a guilty one. A guilty one must be punished.” She shrugs, “I guess, just look at History.”

He frowns at her. The obvious punishable one would be Satan, but Satan is the one regaining grace and reentering Providence. It’s not going to be Satan

“I’m telling you what it said. Somebody has to answer. They’re bringing History to an end but somebody has to answer. I suppose there can’t be ‘nobody’ responsible, and it’s the only way to lay it to rest, I suppose.”

“Guilty of what, exactly? Responsible for what?”

“I think, if you look at much of History in Earth. Like, if you look at how much trouble – there can’t be no recognition for much of that.”

Boaz  drifts over, to have a look down the empty shaft. As if the crumpled note might still be visible. Of course it isn’t. It’s just an endless chute.

What Hokhma seems to imply is, after everything is radiance, there must remain at least one tiny blackened cinder somewhere?  All earthly history was Error, there should be some residue. Isn’t there, like, a conservation-of-matter law? You can’t annihilate something totally, because no matter fine how you might pound it and smash it and incinerate it, it always endures by reappearing in some form, some dust or ash, some fume, or some lasting pollution.

He says at last, “A guilty one?”

Again, the only candidate would be Satan. – But the whole point of the new dispensation is that everybody, everybody is washed clean. Everybody without exception. Everybody.

Hokhma is over at the edge again, looking out over the California agricultural valley. The peaks of the Sierra recede in the distance. In the other direction there’s the ocean’s delicate bulge.

In Dominy Shores, Sheila’s old, square car is gone already, from the café parking lot.

And on the Hartleyville highway, a tow truck is climbing back up toward the yellow sports car.

A first wild, rather egoistic thought, naturally, is that a blameworthy one might be oneself, of course. That would be unthinkably awful. One was never “perfect,” one was always guilty of a few things.

But no, there’s nothing special about oneself.

And the same is true of Virgil – born in 1966 in his average suburb – he’s safe. Virgil Sproehnle is without doubt one of the more unoffending mortals in all Creation, just part of the mass to be lifted up.

Whoever a single solitary “blameworthy” individual may be, in all History, one thing is clear: nobody would want to be that person.

She says, “It’s not Lucifer. Lucifer is the one entering redemption. Getting forgiveness. It can’t be Lucifer.”

It must be some being yet unthought of, who must have been there all the time, unsuspected.

A being more maleficent than Lucifer. Certainly a being inconceivable here in Paradise. What could be more maleficent than Lucifer?

“It does make a kind of sense, though, Boaz. Look at how much in Earth was just simply horrendous,” she says, and her hand pours out upon thousands of instances below.

Like the sadist nun in Calcutta. All the genocide. All the racism and greed and betrayal. Or, just the common ordinary lovelessness.

She says, “The whole rest of History can’t just be erased and be meaningless. There was malice, Boaz, and indifference. There was real meanness that succeeded and did well and was happy. How are you supposed to just forget all that?”

She folds her arms and shuts up.

Below, the Volvo is climbing a mountain road.

On a different road, the tow truck presses on upward, toward the tilted yellow car.

Surely they can forget about the mysteries of metaphysics and turn back to their regular work, focus on their mortal creature. They’re only Guardians, and as Guardians, they’re still an innocent minor working part of a great hierarchy, a small Office devoted to the vexation and tribulation of an ordinary man. It’s not their job to conceive of a being who is darker and greater than Satan himself. They can just be grateful: grateful they never had the slightest inkling such a being could exist.



That a man with a vial of algae could destroy a dam – the idea was ridiculous. Sheila knew she needn’t panic if she could take a calmer view. The rumor was like science fiction and it would thrive on a kind of hysteria, in that gated community traveling around among the ignorant. That Bob could be capable of it was absurd. This was one of those situations where anxiety forms around misunderstandings. Maybe the lab specimens were, simply, defective, and needed dumping. On the drive home she started to get it in perspective, folding herself into the switchback turns, higher and higher. But then she got through town, and Lime Kiln Road opened up before her, the mossy boulder by the live-oaks, the McEvoys’ tumbledown pump shed, the ranch gate overgrown with vines, her tires departing from pavement and hitting gravel’s pouch, the last leftward bend, the potholes and the rightward bend. And when the Volvo was parked in the clearing beneath the oak, the fear was right there with her.

Because you don’t dump organisms in the river. You don’t bother to hike all the way down off the path. Ordinarily he would have made her do the paperwork, and sent her to the post office. A lab splice is expensive. There’s been no cause, or need, for a lab splice now. He wouldn’t have ordered it without making an entry and there was nothing in the log.

She stood beside the car under the tree. Waiting for the first drops of rain, everything was quiet. The leaves of oaks have a way of turning pewter pre-rain. The old Swedish engine block radiated warmth through the hood. In the cedar air at this elevation, standing in spirits of burnt motor-oil, she stayed where she was, a child at home again, with a child’s guaranteed magical invisibility-cloak, and she got a view of him inside, because she could see through the lab kitchen window. In the cinema-bright glare of the task lamp, he was separating seeds and weighing them. The timothy-grass hybrid was scheduled to reach fruit: he would be calculating nutrient content from the Gro-Lites in the lower greenhouse, impatient for results.

There had been no research for months. Nothing that would require a special splice from Reykjavik.

And she knew his views. Everybody knew his views. He coined the expression “hypertrophic” that now everybody used. She herself edited and printed the speech he gave in Spain concluding, memorably, “If any lad or lassie today knows how to drive a lance into the growth monster, let that child speak up” – and this could be his version of a lance.

He hardly looked like a man who could sabotage public works. With a spoon over the metric scales, he looked like a man making his favorite recipe. He looked like a widower. Which he was. Outside, smoke rose from the chimney straight up into the deep chlorophyll heights. The smoke of a woodfire is so visibly a different element from the life of the forest, so obviously carbon, it was graphite pencil-scribbling over a color photo. “I’m back,” she said, when she opened the front door – its edge softened over decades by the grip of palms, an arc worn in the woodgrain where a hook used to hang – then she went ahead and asked, granting herself no time to hesitate and lose courage: “Dad? Did you know why the dam down there is failing?”

She almost never called him Dad. And it was unfortunate that the surprisingly resilient little stub of a word should come to her lips, because he wasn’t her father and she had wanted to get through this without irrelevant emotions. It was only fatigue, fatigue from worrying, while driving. But it was also the fact that she knew now. She did know. It was true.

Standing at his workbench, through his condensed brow he took her in with one sharp glance, then went on measuring hulled seeds into the little Krups coffee-grinder they used for pulverizing. He answered, “Yes, it’s an algae.”

“You didn’t happen to mention that.”

He straightened up from his mad-scientist hunch, brushed his hands clean, put his fists on his hips and looked at her, as if he had been only waiting, with relish, for her to bring this up. He seldom addressed her directly with his whole face. The thought in his mind, visible in his face, was: You’re just like your mother.

Then he turned and began to untie his lab apron.

One doesn’t know what to do. Just start cooking dinner. He was going to routinely quit work now and pour himself a drink. The lab apron sometimes seemed like the only thing bundling Dr. Robert Newton together into a coherent package. The old sweater had a way of spilling his gut forward, and the waist of his jeans always dragged down his hips. She should have washed that sweater, the sleeves were so grimy. Now he was a criminal, a danger to public safety. A simple thing like washing a wool sweater is so much trouble, how do other people have lives organized enough to do that? Loving the old oak tree, the one she always parked under, was a luxurious little infantile romanticism which would do nothing, now, to rescue anything, or excuse anybody.

He said, “I’ve been in suspense waiting for you to make this discovery.”

The usual humor in his voice was dizzying.

He sat down in the wing chair. She was still standing at the open door. She ought to close it. As if bugs’ getting in mattered now. Bugs’ getting in continues to matter, just as much, whether you’re a criminal or not.

“Well, I wonder about your rationality,” she said.

Entire college curriculums hang on his pronouncements. Certain entire ag departments. They couldn’t go back in time. Nothing could go back. He mustn’t ever go to jail. Maybe he did attack the dam, like a “mad scientist,” but he was too dignified for jail, he was too old. Or, it would have to be one of those not-so-awful kinds of jails, like tract housing but inside a fence.

Encountering her tone, he said, “I see. Well, first let me lay it all out. I believe I have anticipated everything. It is r- h- hadical, though, isn’t it.”

“Radical! People live there.”

“You are the one person in the world I knew would make the connection. Now we have to talk. First of all, I’d like to know exactly what you’ve learned down there.”

“What did you have in mind? What did you think would happen?”

Only last week he’d been talking about economic hypertrophy at a dinner party. The memory in her mind now was like a camera-angle from a creeping, spying camera. Maybe it was something she’d have to admit to, in a cross-examination or a court deposition. Over the rim of a cup, he’d been quoting one of his own essays. Agribusiness in some sectors has to destroy seventy percent of its own crop to clear the market. And All over the West, people are building six-bedroom vacation homes in wild canyons. And people at the table chuckled sadly (they’d all heard the “affluence” lectures many times) and lifted their screw-top-rimmed jars of wine to their lips – because Robert Newton had even the Steinbaums serving in old jelly-jars, and mismatched plates.

“The thing is,” Sheila said, “you’re not crazy.”

“I’m glad you think that.”

“Really, what did you have in mind? Bob!”

He folded his hands. “The total cost to the economy will be a few hundred billion dollars, at the mmm-most. In case you’re mmmeasuring consequences in that way. I can see you’ve been worried. Let me lay it out for you, all my thinking.”

“You’re endangering people’s lives.”

“Nobody’s life is endangered. The whole thing is a very gentle pinch I’m administering. Now we need to discuss this completely, now that you’re conscious of the whole thing.”

“Does the algae really destroy concrete? Is that true?”

He didn’t exactly answer, he just watched her reaction.

Then, “It’s a biofilm. It secretes polysaccharides and hosts, hosts, hosts a biofilm.”

Her skull prickling, she just looked at him, experiencing this new form of paranoia. She didn’t like the expression “now that you’re conscious of the whole thing,” because what exactly was the whole thing.

“It establishes a biofilm where mmm-microbes secrete enzymes. The enzymes happen to digest phosphorus. The biofilm is natural. The whole thing is natural processes. And listen to me now: I’m not endangering anyone. Remember all those little beakers on the w-wire racks? When I was experimenting? When I was using chunks of the old tetherball-pole foundation? And I’ve been very thorough—”

“What do you mean ‘gentle pinch’? You’re ‘administering’?”

“There are not many important concrete structures on the river between there and the delta. At the delta, you see, it hits salt water. Let me try to put your mind at rest. Come here. You need a glass of wine, it’s dinnertime, and they brought up a case. We need to have a discussion about this. You’re entitled to an explanation.”

“I don’t…” She stood where she was. He always drank too much wine, every night, it would be part of the media story: the empty winebottles out back. “…I don’t want to put my mind at rest.”

“Well, but you need to slow down. You need to put a brake on your emotions for a minute. You have an appearance, right now, like you’re mighty worried.”

“There are concrete structures between here and the delta.”

“I’ve studied it. I know what’s there.”

The question would be, how does a grandiose megalomaniac distinguish between an important concrete structure and an “unimportant” one.

“Sheila, I’m going to give you an explanation, because you’re entitled. But it’s not guaranteed you’ll understand or – of course, you’ll understand – rather I should say it’ll be hard to ‘sympathize fully.’ Because it’s natural for people to see hard economic times as a social evil. People naturally don’t want to feel ‘poor.’ Really, all processes of adaptation are considered undesirable. People don’t like to learn or change. Or adapt. Nobody does. Organisms don’t.”

His arm had lifted behind him, meaning not just downhill in the Dominy Shores development, but all over California and everywhere. “And honestly? Those people down there, they remember nothing.”

Bob, though he might deny it, really did look down on those people – and now he was some kind of divinity. He was Jahweh dispensing justice. He’d been saying this same thing at the Steinbaums’ dinner party, and then lifting his sloppy wineglass, not Jahweh then but a paunchy Zeus, teeth grey from the wine.

“It’s a basophilic algae that thrives only in freshwater. It hits saltwater and dies. The whole bloom will perish in the delta. Between here and the first tidal saltwater, there are very few structures with cement in their foundation. Everything in the river mud is creosote wood pilings. Or else it’s steel. Or of course levees that will have concrete chunks in the riprap. The little irrigation gates use concrete but they lead straight out to ditches. You get down in the flats and the more lentic zones, nobody needs to use concrete. There’s an oh-old bridge in Miranda that has concrete. Which is c-condemned anyway. The levees are mostly earthen berms. Concrete fuh-foundations don’t work in that mud-bottom river. They use pilings. I’ve done a great deal of research, Sheila. So take my word for it. What I think of as a cost-benefit analysis…”

He stopped. He could see she was past conversing.

Realistically, the expression “cost-benefit analysis” might strike some people as insane. He never considered anyone but himself. He was like a child. They would be famous. All the recycling in the dooryard would look, to the media, like typical squalor, squalor of a psychopath. “What about the Agricultural Advisory and the NSF and the National Academy? They’ll all disown you.”

He agreed. “I’ve never exactly been the voice crying in the wilderness. And I have foreseen the possibility of going to jail. But it isn’t likely. You, my dear, are the one person in the world who has the knowledge to see a connection. Along with perhaps the interns. Who are just kids. Who are just here for the summers, and who hardly notice bits of concrete in beakers, you know, in the potting shed. And who knew nothing of my engineering contracts. Now.” He crossed one leg over the other, merrily. “Tell me what you’ve heard, down there at your coffee shop.”

“It’s a dam. You’re endangering people.”

“Nobody is endangered. Now listen,” he was winding up to begin explaining all over again.

Meanwhile, at last, she pushed the front door all the way shut.

“Sheila? Any structural failure will happen so slowly. That algae, it takes weeks to break down one millimeter, and that’s very old concrete down there. Curious thing about concrete: the bond keeps hardening over a century.”

Had he been doing this for months? Going alone to the river with his vials?

“What about the people, Bob? Maybe you don’t happen to like them in Dominy Shores but they’ve got rights, and it’s illegal.”

“I don’t ‘dislike’ anybody. You misunderstand entirely. I’m not ‘radical’ in that terrible sense.”

She knew the dam itself was now only an obsolete silt-retention dam. Which the Bureau of Reclamation itself would have liked to blow up, but couldn’t, because of the homeowners.

He said, “I’m breaking the law. You’re right about that. The consequences will, however – let’s say this – it definitely will put a brake on the economy. That’s the point. And bring in new technologies locally. And old technologies. You know all my thinking. I really want to put a brake on the economy.”

She did then look at him. This was unbelievable.

He said, “Tell me. What do they know? How did you find out?”

“A guy. Some guy. Some public relations guy. They contacted investigators.”

“What investigators?”

“I don’t know.”

What had come to mind was Virgil Sproehnle’s mouth, the upper lip. And the conceitedness. He was an ignorant idiot who might say anything to anybody. She felt helpless in every direction.

Bob said, “In the case of those people down there, I’ll tell you what will happen. Their property values will be go up over time. The vv-” he fluttered his eyelids, with a smile, “the vegetation will come back, and they’ll be living in a river canyon. Minus their speedboats. But they should have no worries about their property values.” He paused and sharpened his eye on her. “Sheila, I’m sure all those Dominy Shores people are good folks – ”

“No, they’re not all ‘good folks’ necessarily. But that isn’t the point. You can’t say ‘Oh, salt of the earth’ and then – “ she threw a hand out, toward everything, toward the real world.

She was arguing against Bob as if he were a total stranger.

He said, “Of course they are good folks. If, perhaps, allowed to be irresponsible. You misunderstand me. Those people will have worked hard to buy their houses, and I regret that I’m changing their – Well, I’m making them revise their expectations.” He looked down, to watch his thumbs twiddle, sitting in the old wing chair that, itself, seemed part of the problem, the way it had pouched over the years to fit his body-shape.

“But those people are the least of it, Sheila. The big farms in the valley. The urban water delivery systems. There will be the big adaptations, over time. That’ll cost, eventually.”

“Well, they think it’s you,” she snapped.

That wasn’t true, nobody suspected him, and he would know that.

But he was so self-centered, he was so weirdly calm – because weirdly arrogant – and this thing he’d done could never be reversed. He’d invented his little green algae weapon and then actually used it, like a little boy. Her hands at her sides opened and closed, opened and closed, and she headed for the kitchen, her hands still opening and closing.

“Who?” he said. “Who thinks?”

“They think it’s someone. They suspect. They had the FBI lab analyzing the algae,” she made her voice go lower, calmer, “and people down there think it’s a genetic – a genetic creation. That’s the rumor. I met this PR man today. And that’s the rumor.”

In a dreamy flash, for an instant the PR man Virgil Sproehnle seemed her only friend, merely because there was some simplicity there: there was his trusty ignorance. She only wished she could tell somebody. She never had anybody to talk to. All her friends in New York and Cranbrook, she’d let them drift away, she was so disloyal, in her strange little perverse, diagonal life.

In that yellow car, to sit in a passenger seat and to be regarded with hope, or hopefulness, by a grown man in the driver’s seat while he steered, it was of course naturally sticky. His being so mistaken was part of the recipe, his masculine complex mix, ardor and cheerful blundering, blundering in someone who, elsewhere in the world, had some know-how and dignity. She really wished she had a friend – where had they all gone? – all in Connecticut or upstate, or the city, or the little towns around Grosse Pointe, married, working at careers. She was the one who had deserted everybody. Plus, the period of caring for her mother had isolated her. Kept her out of the world. She told her stepfather, “People already think it got dumped in the river upstream. They do think that. Some people have kind of reached that conclusion.”

He was listening with interest. He had anticipated this outcome. That was the light in his eye.

“I would be very surprised if anyone saw a link. It would require a scientific mind. Ha. We shall see. In the meantime, Sheila, if I’m caught, I’ll say I’m the g-ck-guilty party of course. And you ought to say you were innocent of the whole scheme, since that would be the truth. In general, you should tell the absolute truth, as faithfully as you can, once a legal investigation begins. That’s a rule. Always the truth. Understand?” He watched her for a reaction. “I want you to keep something in mind, though. If I do go to trial, your mother’s Philadelphia lawyers will keep me out of prison. It’s their job. You’ve never seen these lawyers work. I’m afraid I enjoy a certain advantage in the legal system because of the Carmel money.”

He knew full well he could count on her and she had no backbone. She was bound to him, because it was a matter of love. This was hallucination-like: now it was time for her to turn to the cupboards and start cooking dinner in this situation.

He got up out of the chair. “You know, I wouldn’t be unhappy if I had to spend some time in an institution. I have forseen that. Going to jail would be a terrible waste, because it would keep me away from the Seed Bank. But—” he turned an open hand.

His only worry was being separated from his tables and soil beds. He was always so selfish. She used to admire that quality, that concentration. “Well, do you plan on eventually saying anything? …Or …anything?”

“‘Saying anything’? To whom?” He was trying to pull his too-short sleeves down over his wrists. The grime in those sleeves was from the beet harvest, months ago, an entire week of washing endless bushels of beets on the greenhouse tables, and the heavy smell of the sugar assay, the fermentation-smell, it was a very long week. “I’m not any sort of public figure, I’m a scientist, I don’t have to say things.” It was one of his conceits, pretending to be obscure. It was a transparent ruse. Of course he was a public figure. “Let people look at what I’ve published. And my work. I don’t have to say things.”

“Nobody out there is this passionate about,” her hands conjured, “…soil and water and…”

“I’m sorry if my work seems abstruse. I also apologize that I’m not a sentimental conservationist.” She’d made the mistake of getting him agitated. He started raising his voice toward the walls, “This little pinch I am inflicting is about good business practice. Business. They call themselves ‘businessmen.’ They’re all main-chancers, ruining the planet. And call that ‘business.’”

“You have to bring people with you, Bob.”

“Explanations are wasted. Explanations are everywhere. And they’re wasted on people. I do what I do. I do what I do.” He was entering one of his little crescendos.

“Okay, just sit down.”

“That’s it. I do what I do.” He’d started making his strange personal gesture of slicing his hand downward from his forehead. “I do what I do. That’s all. I do what I do.”

“Relax, Bob, I’m on your side.”

“Sweetie, for y-years with the Brandenberg Group and the Ag Advisory and in The Economist and all the WTO things, everything is published. Everything I’ve ever said is already published. And it’s in my books. And plenty of others have been saying the same. People who want explanations, lllet them llllook. Let them look there.” He’d resolved to calm down, trying again to pull his sleeves over his wrists. That sweater had permanently shrunk.

“And now here’s something, just to change the subject,” he said, taking a breath.

On the lab table lay a print-out from his e-mail, which he set a hand on. “This little girl Sarah Brett in my class, she’s wonderful. She’s gonna singlehandedly save the whole class, she’s so smart. You know, one student can do that. One student can make the tone.”

He was ashamed, now, of having raised his voice. He said, lifting the page high before himself, “So. What do you think of this, for a seven-year-old: ‘Dear Dr. Newton, Can you please tell me how many electrons a gold atom has on it and how many electrons a lead atom has on it?’”

Sheila felt her own face still blazing.

“Don’t you think that’s marvelous? Know how old she is? Seven! And she wants to remove a few electrons in order to change lead to gold.” He had the strangest ability to put anger aside as fast as changing stations on a radio. She couldn’t keep up with him. She was always the one still jangling.

“I don’t know – ” she said, in rising panic, and with a swirl she sat down.

A time of pretending still to be young was over. This would mark her passage. Passage to a different stage of life where there’s no possibility of college, and no longer any satisfaction, or pretending satisfaction was possible. Or pretending anything anymore. Realistically, she’d been in that stage for a while. She’d long ago stopped getting anything. She – come to think of it – didn’t want anything. She hadn’t wanted anything for a long time, and it was fine.

He said, “Let me provide you with a glass of wine.” He’d been eyeing her diagnostically. He limped around toward the kitchen, too elderly a man to go to jail. “Listen to me, darling. Everything will work out fine. I’ve done a complete moral computation on this.”









A Complete Moral Computation



Meanwhile Virgil in his misery had reached a point where he couldn’t move in his car seat – really a point in his life, where he couldn’t physically move, even though he was late for his meeting, sitting outside the Hansen house, parked far down along the curb, where anybody inside the house wouldn’t notice. The car seat was a trap. It was quicksand. Behind him was the storyboard for “An Endangered Lake” – but that girl, her gaze, had turned everything to powdery towers that could fall at a touch. The Hansens’ house in the dusk, with its inner lamps of den and kitchen, was low, small. You’d never know they had so much money. People who live in a such a modest house don’t have temptations.

Or, quite the opposite, they choose a plainer life because they’re smart, it’s not dullness or tastelessness, it’s wisdom. He looked at his own peculiar hands, lying on the steering wheel, the same hands that could never play the nylon-stringed folk guitar, the same hands that dialed numbers at his Aardent desk and tilted the packet of sugar over the paper cup, the hands that once long ago turned over the multiple-choice test booklet, face-up on his desk, and gripped a pencil and got to work. At what point do you go wrong? You hit an age where it’s too late. Probably it was already too late when he was working hard to blacken in the right boxes on the test booklet. It was already too late on the glittering night when he and Isobel descended the three carpeted steps at Alfresco and they were shown to the best table in the house. A fool is going to think such moments are the beginnings of everything. But they’re the ends, just as much. Many years later, in the gaze of a young woman in a coffee shop, you see what you’ve become. In her gaze innocence was combined with insight. The insight amounted to disappointment. She saw him and understood him – and there was a quiet tick of recalculation.

Against the car seat back, his lungs were heavy. He was making too much of her. The specific Sheila might have been anyone, any pretty young woman at the right moment, to appear as a lamp in a man’s gathering dark. A woman like her was not going to erase all his decades’ choices. No “revelation” now was going to save him or save everything he’d already annihilated. Isobel would remain forever unreachable and the marriage would pass on into eternity and the condominium would pass away, and his mutual funds would pass away. Aardent Communications of course thankfully would pass away. – His only worldly possession, then, had been average success. Which existed in his own mind alone. So he would go to his grave having only tried to add a little more envy to the world. And maybe, in that, succeeded. One day, somebody else will own the condominium, an attractive three-bedroom in a good neighborhood. As he sat in his parked car, the actual deafening abyss, the howling black vacuum itself, was present to him, just behind his left ear, the abyss was a hole, but not exactly a rectangular six-foot hole. Rather, the hole was more like a dark turning wheel there: It was a grinding black Ferris wheel perhaps throwing off tiny wandering sparks in its grinding darkness, actually muffling all sound on that side, a vacuum, tolling in the ear. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move in the car seat. He couldn’t turn his own head to see it, this imagined or felt thing. He had no legitimate right to motion. There was no love, there’s only competition. The sun had gone below the mountain. Lamplight, inside the Hansens’ house, would keep becoming more exclusive. Today by rubbing up with untroubled people like that, he could at least pretend to get the sensation of decency. Which is all a shallow personality requires, just the sensation of it. He pictured how bright, and how organized, the Hansens’ kitchen was, its kitchen desk in a niche with its telephone and computer, its recipe file, its pigeonhole compartments, its small framed artwork involving an American eagle.

He popped the car door and spilled free and stood up, reaching his full ethical stature, to start the climb toward the Hansens’ driveway, tugging his shirt to pull out the damp creases – nobody, just looking at him, would think he was a sneak or a liar – carrying the portfolio for the movie at arm’s length by its handle. On the cover was a photo of Lake Dominy in better days. It was something he could present on the doorstep, something from a life where he had obviously, evidently, been a responsible man. It would impress Sabin Hansen seeing the storyboards. Pictix Partners had done well. The movie narrated a geological history about a fictitious lake here on this spot, and it claimed there was once, originally, a natural body of water, right where the reservoir now stands. The computer graphics would be the persuasive thing: the swelling and shrinking of topographical contour-lines. A geologist would be filmed describing it. Or else an actor holding a rock hammer. An actor, if there’s a budget for it, would be better than some actual professor. And he should wear a yellow hard hat, along with a necktie. He could stand beside a surveyor’s tripod.

Mr. Hansen pulled open the front door, the bourbon-drinker’s face of a Catholic priest. Last time it was the maid. Sometimes a rich man opens his own door, rather than letting the help do it. One hand gripped a goblet, and the other held up a pair of side-by-side fingers in admonition. “Virgil, now remember. None of this Mister crap. Call me Thumper, you and Izzie.” He turned and walked into the house. He was blind of course to Virgil’s moral unfitness.

The Guatemalan woman stood by, in her maid’s uniform, and she might see it. She might. The way she averted her eyes, it seemed like complicity, like kinship. Paranoia can reach the point of being, objectively, ridiculous.

Hansen was walking away into the depths of the house, saying, “You want to present your movie idea to me,” while Virgil came along after, piloting the big Samsonite rectangle through doorways. Mr. Hansen flipped a hand at the open liquor cabinet. “Want anything, help yourself.” The back den, with its low ceiling, was where they had conferred once before, a comfortable room overlooking Lake Dominy’s bowl of drying mud.

It was starkly visible out there, where the water level had dropped. In the last twilight, rock formations poked out from the slope of muck. Tree stumps pointed up. Farther out, there was still a mile of water, all pressing against the old cement dam, where there were obvious fissures, visible from this distance, in straight grout lines. It did look bad. These enraged citizens just couldn’t figure out somebody to sue. There was nobody to sue.

“How’s Isobel?”

“Isobel’s wonderful. She’s great. You know Isobel. She’s tops. By the way I found an ecologist,” he said, lightheaded from his own phoniness. “She’s a full professor at Sacramento State. She can generate an environmental impact report. She does it all the time.”

Mr. Hansen considered this news and said, “Fine. Good work. But get rid of her and find a male, a scientist, a man. I’m sure she’s good, but lotsa people won’t listen if it’s a woman.”

He might be right. – Or, in fact, he was probably wrong, given the target markets here. But he was the boss. Virgil might have to go hunting again.

“So let’s see.” Mr. Hansen was unsnapping the portfolio. Standing at his big deep table, he flipped to the first picture, the computer-generated mountain range. And he went on flipping. It would start with an animation sequence that portrayed the birth of the Sierra Nevada, the new mountains’ embrace of a tiny lake here, aeons ago. It was a made-up lake. There was never any such lake, but they could find a scientist to say, unequivocally, there might have been. And who knows? There might have been! And the graphics would be so beautiful. A range of mountains in 3-D animation would swell and subside in sped-up history. Geographic contour lines, like fingerprints, would spread, then shrink, bunching together, defining mountains, then they’d flatten out again. It would show the original “Lake Dominy” being born, trapped behind a ridge during the Ordovician. Then during the Permian, the ridge would shrivel and, through a notch, release all the captured water. The mountains would be barren, bereft of their ancient waters. Until mining arrived in the nineteenth century. And in the twentieth century, then, the Bureau of Reclamation. Only the Bureau of Reclamation could restore the original lake.

The old man was flipping too fast, skipping the best parts. He whined, “You know what they are, up there? They’re like those fear-of-technology types. What’s the word I’m looking for, when you hate machines? And you hate technology. Not Mennonite.”

The whole proposal wasn’t going to get more than a cursory flip-through. Aardent had paid a lot of money for it, it was great-looking, and now the client would only scan it and green-light the whole thing impatiently, which Virgil knew from experience could lead to dissatisfaction down the line. “Let me just pause here to explain the concept we’ve got.”

“This is fine. Go ahead.” He clapped the portfolio shut. “But I’ll tell you what else you should do. Make up an Indian legend about the lake. The old sacred lake.” (Even as Virgil let him go on, he knew it was probably a good idea – knew it by the resistance he experienced in himself. It was how other people’s good ideas first hit him: as annoyances.) “Even change the movie-title to fit. – Some legend. Say the Great Spirit made the lake, then Trickster Coyote drained it. Anything like that. Find an old Indian around here, close by, just anybody who could claim to have Indian blood, an old kook would be fine, and get this person to say he remembers his great grandmother’s story about the lake Trickster Coyote stole.”

People like Sabin Hansen were liberated to be brilliant because certain people have no filter and can think the unconscionable thoughts. Often Virgil wondered if he was too nice for this business. Or else, simply, too slow.

Mr. Hansen checked his wristwatch. The meeting was over. “Then, Virgil, I really want you to go up to North Liberty. You have no idea what a fine angle you have there. You want to show how crackpot they are. They’re up there experimenting with agriculture,” he landed on the word as if it were a sexual deviance.

“Why agriculture?” Virgil said, while all his natural foolishness came right back. Which only a few minutes ago he was too wise for. Sheila’s father was in agriculture in North Liberty.

“These people want to go around planting seeds in the open meadows and forest floors. Like they want to be able to send their little wives and daughters out with baskets. No joke. Replace the agriculture industry. Feed the nation on acorns and tubers and grubs.”

“In North Liberty?” Virgil said. He was always so unsatisfiable, so unimprovable, so lucky.

“OMB Appropriations and Interior both have their budgets up in July. Trust me. I know how Washington works, and I know how Sacramento works. You have to get ’em at their first meeting.”

This would provide an honorable, an altogether imperative, reason to go up there. And redeem himself. Once he found her, she would put him in touch with her father, the agriculturist. He might start learning about a true target segment. They were a most important segment up there! Driving up there was only logical. Why was he suddenly so incompetent as a public relations man?

Mr. Hansen was looking at him. “—Do you want me to sign something?”

“Pardon me?”

“Sign my approval? Or something?”

“No, I was just thinking you’re right. I have to go up in the mountains and meet some of these people you call the elves.”

Mr. Hansen was going to leave the room now, and Virgil had to scrape his portfolio together.

“Now listen here, Virgil. Isobel emailed, and she told me about your casino windfall. She wanted my opinion. She says the Bally corporation is offering to buy out your interest. Fine. Take their offer. Sell. Here’s my advice. Are you listening? You don’t want a casino. Take one big lump sum payment. Hire a lawyer to negotiate and make them pay top dollar. One lump. And get free of them. Take my word for it, you don’t want to be in the gaming business. Just seriously take my word. Then use that money to develop the acreage you’ve got down on the lower Artemisia. Put in high-end home sites. Right now you’ve got two acres. But that whole BLM tract is deeded for public sale, and you could get all 640 acres. I could arrange that. I know a real estate lawyer. I’ll put you onto him. These days you can still develop cheap. There’s going to be a crunch. But there won’t be a crunch for the high-end. Put all your windfall into it. Think big here. If you can right-away tie it up in a building trust, you’ll avoid some taxes. Then as you spend it, you can expense everything you do. Am I being clear? That’s my advice. Take your windfall. Bet it all on land in Artemisia County. Be a developer.”

“Yes, sir, thank you, I do follow you,” Virgil said, sensing himself being bundled out the front door. This was the non-sunset side of the house. Outside the door, complete night had fallen.

“Kills brain cells when people call you ‘sir.’”

Virgil, below the threshold looking up, said, “I’m glad you like the movie. And I’ll be in touch.”

In the doorframe, holding his goblet again, the old man lifted a hand with two upraised limp fingers, made a few tapping motions toward Virgil, then turned back inside.

Right now it was late. Driving up now would be pointless. It would be ridiculous. Tomorrow he would go up. He would arrive with the purpose in mind of locating her father. Get some demographics at county government. Start feeling the ethos. North Liberty would be one of those little places where people are easy to find. And toward Sheila, he would keep only the most respectful, cordial relations. He would even treat her with coolness. Coolness – formality – she would understand as a form of respect and gratitude.

For the true, ulterior agenda in this trip was obvious to him. He had to prove his decency to himself as much as to her. The chance for rescue is always at hand, every day, every minute, opportunities are everywhere. Below the Hansens’ doorstep, he launched out into total darkness. The lamplight inside the house had burned his eyes, but he was swimming out into good luck, good luck floating and bobbing everywhere.










The Inevitable Sex Scene



The next day, therefore, might have promised to be an extremely fascinating one for Guardians.

But no. The End of History is back in its countdown again. This time it’s not a green envelope, it’s a plain open page, addressed to all Tutelaries.

Headed “Pursuant to Ongoing Merger,” it announces a new policy. This seems like a policy that could put an end to Guardians. And even invalidate most of institutional Heaven:




Boaz was the one to first see it, and when he read it silently to himself, he did think for one impractical, childish minute that if he disposed of it quick – and with perfect innocent stubbornness never mentioned it! – it might go away and have no repercussions. It would be like a mistake or a dream or a misprint somewhere – nobody would have to know of it, and events might just go on. But of course his fellow-Cadet and the Angel Ordinary were both present, too, in the Office, and aren’t Providence’s lidless eyes on everything always? So he got their attention and told them he’d found this thing. And he read aloud the single sentence, strange as it is.

It does make the Office feel cut adrift. Look at Virgil Sproehnle so far, the same middle-class, male California homeowner, healthy, wealthy, yet with health insurance including dental and vision, and a retirement fund, and a nice car, and a walletful of trivia like a JungleJuiceBar card entitling him to a free smoothie after he’s purchased twelve. Who cares if this person resents his parents’ inferiority? Or can’t face up to his own wife? Who cares if he can’t pronounce Modigliani? Will such a peeved little heart be redeemed instantly to eternal life?

Hokhma comes back from the edge – having been out there keeping an eye on the San Francisco apartment, where Virgil and his wife now are eating their breakfast. She adds her own complaint about the new policy, “The Damned? Are the ones who want to abolish Tribulation?”

It’s a query. Directed at their Angel Ordinary sitting at the table.

Who won’t respond. Who, as he does every day, sweeps a forearm across the newsprint page on the table, to banish creases, and he swells closer to the fine print.

There’s something settled and fated about the Angel now. As liaison, he makes trips to the Empyrean, but he doesn’t come back seeming very gladdened, he comes back preoccupied. And thwarted-looking. There’s something tired, something defeated. Defeated amidst a universal triumph which, of course, includes him too.

Now would be the moment to ask. Who, or what, the rumored “supremely guilty one” is.

And what such a one’s transgression might possibly have been!

Whatever it was, it would have to have been something so fundamental, so inconceivable, so cosmically malevolent – like even systematically malevolent – if the subject is going to be brought up, it won’t be by Boaz.

Hokhma is drifting back toward the edge, remarking of the scene on Earth below, “One does wish Virgil had something to repent of.”

“It’s just that we got a suburban, regular, not-very-adventurous…”

But it’s all been said a thousand times before. It doesn’t bear repeating.

He, too, goes over to the edge for a look. Breakfast on Earth in the apartment is Virgil’s favorite. Runny eggs and soft toast.

Virgil’s wife is holding a document printout. It arrived in the night, from the New Orleans lawyers, and it describes her payment options, because she’s planning on selling her share of the casino. She could exercise an option to receive dividends and a portion of future royalties: the payments would average around $112,000 a year, to be electronically deposited in her bank account on January 1st of each year, every year, on and on into eternity.

Or, if she prefers, she could accept two lump sum payments, of $8,400,000 each, payable over a two-year period. Which would then end all claim of hers on the Bally Corporation.

Virgil telling his wife why Sabin Hansen thinks the second alternative is better: to take it all in one lump. And how they ought to buy more land in Artemisia County. And put in a road. And be real estate developers. How high-end properties will do better in the future.

Boaz goes back and drops into his own chair.

The bulletin lies before him proclaiming an end to mortals’ trouble and care. Denting the heavy paper is the coin-like sigillum auctoritatis. The foundations of heaven and earth are shifting. Without Tribulations, maybe from this day forth, the “Today Board” will be an obsolete institution. Apparently from now on, in Virgil’s life, things will go along without much influence from this Office. All objects and events on Earth will perhaps seem to move as if by themselves, as if with the creepy liveliness of Ouija Board planchettes.

An Earth without Tribulations would seem more just, yes. But yet, also, it will be a stage-set with lightweight props. And papier-maché boulders. Virgil Sproehnle, any minute now, in his pajamas, will stand up from his chair. He will drop his spoon into his coddled egg, thrust his napkin manfully aside and gird his loins to depart, a man going forth in his dependable, low-maintenance, midprice sports car, to North Liberty, to look for Sheila Carmel in the upper elevations of the Sierra.









The New Clemency




Soon, then, Virgil Sproehnle’s yellow Lexus – a Ouija Board planchette – was coasting uphill into the mountains on I-80 toward the little town of North Liberty. Even as he drove, the man at the center of History was still slightly ill-focused about the exact practical or professional reasons for this trip. Just momentum was carrying him, such was the feeling – momentum from last night’s decision. He had decided that, in these necessary trips to North Liberty, he would get his integrity back, get his honor back. Conversing with her would be unavoidable – finding her, in fact, would be his first strategy! – but he would be courteous, chivalrous, and impersonal. Isobel was his wife. He was married. There was a kind of equity invested there, an investment of himself. Also, she was Isobel. Isobel herself in the flesh. His Isobel.

He could see the downside of this. He wasn’t unrealistic. He could see what he was missing. And would be missing all his life. The young woman in the coffee shop in the green denim apron, Sheila of the pure responsiveness, the open query in her eyes, she met his entire body with a radiance he had never walked into. She was a woman who would never be nonchalant, or blasé. Or jaded or bored or sardonic. Precisely that quality, a tenderness plus a readiness, would be the challenge of someone like her, for some deserving man who comes along. She was somebody who might travel the world and see the best of everything, and the worst of everything, but still never be over-sophisticated. Whereas his wife Isobel, even as a bride she was sophisticated. He remembered when she met his parents in Terra Linda. She rolled her eyes. She rolled her eyes while his father was talking. Virgil had loved her for that. Right then he was grateful, he was rescued. Isobel gave the impression of never having had any vulnerability, never an innocence, for even in the queenly act of physical passion she fanned out in a majesty that shrank Virgil to a most ardent homunculus, bathrobe parted, she guided his hands, she frequently did, and kept establishing for herself her gourmet smiling moments, at last pinning herself back, as if in display, his girl from across campus in the Art History Department, where all the unattainable females used to make him think of thoroughbred ponies in their nervousness and peculiarity. Now, one of those girls was his wife, Isobel Harkness, with her golden limitations. Sheila in the café was, instead, vitally constructed, not “beautiful” in the conventional, negotiable ways. She wasn’t so sexual either; she didn’t perfume the world with that anxiety. But there was this expectancy. This trusting sharpness. In such a woman’s glance, a man condenses in high-resolution. His whole life condenses. A man reaches an age where he can see what he will have missed. He can see what will have become of him. Staying loyal to the wife would be a necessary kind of self-serving, and self-preservation. Today in North Liberty, if they happened to meet up, the second encounter would be civil. It could even be cold. That would be a high form of respect he could pay. He would eat lunch alone in a local saloon or at the counter of a diner. Chat with a citizen whenever possible. Peruse the nearest public library for good long while. Pick up whatever local papers. If possible meet the father and learn about the communities upstream and why they oppose dams. See if there’s a chamber of commerce. Such small-town markets – markets of, as they say, “small cross-section” – offer little handhold for PR to get a grasp.

First he got off at the Dominy Shores road.

And drove by the coffee shop to see if she might happen to be working today. But she wasn’t. Fine.

So he got back on I-80 and kept traveling, up to higher elevations, toward North Liberty. A PR man can be the perfect ambassador, in the sense that he’s already on their side. He already does happen to love renewable energy, organic everything, recycling, saving endangered species. He’s against urban sprawl and global warming. He could eat a raccoon. Without complaint. With pleasure, if it was thoroughly cooked. Flavored with spices. And as a professional Virgil makes a practice of always announcing himself as a PR man, right off. It’s a kind of honest gambit, to say it openly: He’s working for the Dominy Shores Homeowners Association. People have a way of airing their views more freely because they know he’s in the pay of the opposition. It makes him a visiting diplomat instead of some kind of sneak. And maybe run into Sheila.

The trees that swung past in the deeper woods were getting to be huge, their trunks as big-around as magazine kiosks in the city. And they stood planted farther and farther apart, a soft floor intervening, a dust sifting in sunbeams. The deeper he got in her neighborhood, the more real it became, to be heading to Sheila. When you get face-to-face with someone, things aren’t so simple any more. Everything gets decently complicated. At every switchback the road tilted anew and levered aside a hill, disclosing an unthought-of new grade, to be scaled by the little 3.0-litre engine under the hood. In the hood’s yellow surface, reflections of trees kept washing away, to left and to right. The sun exploded through cedar boughs and discovered pollen flashing on the windshield. When the roadsigns started indicating a 25 mph speed zone ahead, coming into North Liberty, he immediately lost hope and slowed down.

Because he could see that the town of North Liberty wasn’t anything. There was nothing. It was one of those places with no economy. What do people do? If a man went to town – to, say, stand up and read the bulletin board in front of the general store/gas station/post office/video rental – then he himself would be the only event happening in town.

Anyway he pulled off to a stop, in his, in this context, glamorous car. He twisted the key to cut the engine.

So far, this sunny warm day was a day of setbacks. On his voice-mail at work, the Save Our Prostates Foundation had left a message saying that they didn’t want Wankers the Clown as a luncheon speaker. Poor Wankers, for his publicity, would have to sink to Rotary Club benefits. And store openings. Serves him right.

Anyway, he got out of his car, an instance of a married businessman here, Virgil Sproehnle of San Francisco, a man who had kissed his wife goodbye this morning in her L.L. Bean terrycloth robe on the doorstep. There were just three or four buildings. Far away on a hillside, a FedEx truck’s bright plumage was visible flashing through the trees, raising a dust. People here must do various kinds of quiet, harmless things, artsy things, grubby little things, nonprofits, tax evasion, pot growing, internet things. Whereas he was about to come into (wasn’t he?) improbable amounts of money from Louisiana. Though that wouldn’t be true until it happened.

He could read the bulletin board, for a start. The general store was fronted by an old-fashioned wooden boardwalk. He stood up to the “Community Messages” to find it covered with the typical notices, carpenters and kittens and therapists, notebook-paper pages torn to fringe at the margin where a phone number was repeatedly inscribed, a color xerox inquiring after a lost dog, business cards, people seeking roommates, offering massages, guitar lessons, (Virgil’s heart kept sinking lower), firewood, psychic readings, domestic housework in trade for the loan of a Rototiller, grief counseling, a free rooster to a good home. A man in such a place gets the actual heartache of his own uselessness and everything’s futility.

But it was a small town and, of course, he did find the exact thing he was looking for:


North Liberty Schoolhouse

Annual Free Fair.

Bring Your Chattel. Trade It Away.

Contact Sheila Carmel, chez Newton, Lime Kiln Road.

(I might be in the studio, or I might be in the grass plots.

If you cant find me, you can always leave a message with a lab intern. Not with Bob.)


How many Sheilas could there be? Also, there was evidence of agriculture. Could his Sheila possibly have left out the apostrophe? She did say she’d, oddly, never gone to college. On the side-window of the general store, a county roadmap was taped. Surely a Lime Kiln Road could be discovered. He found he did have cell service, and according to the 411 operator, there was a “Robert Newton” but the number was unlisted.

So, five minutes later, he was back in his car cruising up Lime Kiln Road. Seeing no houses or buildings. Lime Kiln Road was an ill-paved shoulderless thing, like the road they argued over when they met, the kind of road Sheila loves and defends. An occasional dirt driveway disappeared into the woods. There were no mailboxes. People would have P.O. boxes, only in town. The search seemed impossible. There were driveways every half-mile or so, looking hostile to visitors, some guarded by swinging ranch gates. Then ahead was a police car. It was parked across the road. It was a roadblock. A policeman stood on the double-yellow line. To one side stood a parked van, along with a couple of men who were not in uniform.

“Sorry. This will be closed for some time.”

Virgil asked what the problem was, while letting his window drift to a stop.

“Could be logging or something.”

No. A law-enforcement man knows the real reason, he just doesn’t gossip with civilians. He looked like a local boy, something in his truculence.

“Well, maybe you can help me, if you happen to know the area. I’m looking for a house on Lime Kiln Road where a Robert Newton lives, and possibly his stepdaughter Sheila.”

Behind the mirrored sunglasses, a shutter was clicking. “Wait just a minute,” he said and he trod sidewise, crabwise, moving to the edge of the road, where the two men stood, beside their van with lidded paper coffee cups. An explanation for all this hovered, almost within connecting distance. The policeman consulted the two men, who were wearing nylon windbreakers.

And that was the betraying detail. Who wears such windbreakers? Not hunters. Not city tourists. The men were bareheaded, both with perfect haircuts, here where local people would wear caps. And there was a certain crease in their trousers. One wore a characteristic kind of shoe, black trainers.

But mostly it was the windbreakers. They were government. They were FBI, or ATF, people who spoke with an unamused drawl. When one of the two did come up to Virgil’s car window, he said, “Good morning. Maybe we can help you” – this without a drawl – rather an accent clean and uninflected. It could be an inside-the-beltway accent. Or from anywhere. From CNN.

Unfortunately, Virgil already felt the way he always did with cops: disrespected. Which could turn to surly. “I’m looking for Robert Newton, I think. Or his daughter Sheila. Stepdaughter, that is. Might be up this road, I believe. I’m a visitor.”

“What’s your business here in North Liberty?”

Legally he wasn’t obliged to explain himself, but he started offering explanations anyway, in a general flush of resentment, because he was, yes, a citizen with rights, and these men were public servants. It’s necessary to keep that in perspective: he was their taxpayer-boss. And he was sinless. That was important to keep in mind. He explained he was with a PR firm in San Francisco. And he was trying to learn about river ecology; there was a controversy going on, it involved a dam downstream, and somebody up here, maybe Mr. Robert Newton, would be a source of information about ecology.

The man’s gaze had telescoped inwardly focusing not on Virgil’s face but on his motives – then drifting – to the dashboard, the upholstery, the passenger seat, the empty back seat.

This man was already familiar with all the facts Virgil was giving him.

Then Virgil was filled with awe, because the explanation stopped hovering and it landed, it docked, with a perfect fit. Sabin Hansen was right. There was a “bio-sabateur.” It was Robert Newton. He was a scientist, an agricultural scientist. He had bred a species of algae. What were the marketing possibilities of an algae that gently demolishes concrete? Patents can be registered. There must be industrial uses. And it was Sheila’s father! Virgil’s mind went everywhere. It’s possible old Sabin Hansen had caused this very police investigation, directly or indirectly.

The man said, “Maybe we can help you. This will take a moment.” Then he, unlike the uniformed policeman, turned his back on Virgil.

The policeman, with his sunglasses, kept watching Virgil levelly.

At this point, however, he removed the sunglasses and dropped them on the road surface. He put both hands on his side-holster, set one foot back as a brace, and pulled his pistol out, it looked like one of those heavy guns with a bullet that could go through a car-door. He gripped the weapon with both hands but its muzzle was aimed down at the ground between them. “Sir, we’re going to have to examine you and your car. Lift up both hands and keep them visible. I’m going to ask you to open your car door but stay seated. Using one hand, turn off the engine. Then remove the ignition key and drop it outside the car on the ground. Then stand up and move away from the car. Keep both hands visible at all times.”

A tall wave rose in his chest, and it wasn’t fear. It was exhilaration. A great canyon was opening for him. He didn’t even know what this was yet, but it was something. Giddy detachment had one helpful result, it kept him clear-headed, and compliant. “Okay, I’m complying, but I have to say first, that I am a law-abiding citizen and I’m only complying because I trust that there’s some good reason for this. I’m going to want to see everybody’s badges.”

Oh, but they were the real thing, there’s no way you can fake being a local cop, there’s a certain sparkle in the eye, mixed with a certain equal dimness there. Which can only come from years of training and experience on the force. A cop, too, can always recognize an innocent citizen by the citizen’s privileged limpness: Nobody could possibly suspect him of anything, wearing his mail-order-catalogue WWII bomber jacket to impress Sheila, and pre-washed denim jeans. From here on out, the encounter would de-escalate, and maybe even develop the feeling of collaboration that can accrue between a citizen and an investigator doing his job. He certainly hoped he was looking docile and intelligent, because now it seemed actually true, the dam had been cracked. Sabin Hansen was right. It was actually a new-bred kind of algae. And Sheila was further along the road.

“We would like to see some identification,” said the man in the windbreaker. His partner, the other windbreaker man, seemed not to do any talking.

Virgil didn’t yet get out his wallet. “And you would be?”

“This is Deputy Sheriff Kinundrum with the Cielo County Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

The officer’s short cannon was aimed safely at the ground. But he gripped it two-handed as if restraining an animal. It came to mind, belatedly now, that being held at gunpoint was alarming, as well as dangerous, and moreover, insulting to himself and his citizenship.

To explain himself and his partner, the windbreaker man said, “We’re with Fish and Wildlife.”

Fish and Wildlife was a thin pretext. Virgil permitted himself some sarcasm: “People on Lime Kiln Road have been catching more than their limit?”

Nobody present responded to the taunt. Just accepted the offer of his driver’s license. Then, with scarcely a glance, handed it back. It’s necessary to forgive law-enforcement types: if a law-enforcement type admits the slightest nick of sympathy, they’re weakened. And they do have to deal with people and situations Virgil wouldn’t dream of.

“So Mr. Sproehnle.” (He prounounced it correctly, which was interesting.) “This road is going to be closed for maybe an hour. Sorry.”

The policeman’s gun got put away in its holster – because another car was coming around the bend. It was an old truck, loaded with firewood, and it pulled in behind Virgil’s car. The driver inside – he looked like a proper mountain man, wearing a greasy billed cap, and no fresh windbreaker – cut his engine because obviously there was going to be a wait.

“Sorry. We won’t be letting anybody past here for possibly an hour.” (Now that the policeman’s weapon was back in its holster, Virgil experienced a shiver in crossing back to safety.) “Down the road, back in Camptown there are places. You could get cup of coffee or something. This will be maybe an hour. But you can’t wait here. Is that address on your driver’s license still correct?”

The man hadn’t glanced at it long enough to notice an address. Possibly Sabin Hansen did start all this. It didn’t seem inconceivable.

“Tell me something,” Virgil went ahead, recklessly: “Does this have to do with the Dominy Shores gated community?”

The three men seemed, blandly, unimpressed by his jumping to that far-out idea.

Their white windowless van was nondescript, but it did have a miniature corkscrew-shaped antenna standing on the rear bumper.

Virgil went further, into more risk, because at this point he felt (according to the ruling metaphor of this whole canyon) like a salmon willing to leap anything. “Does this Robert Newton have anything to do with the dam? Did he in fact breed the algae?”

The three men didn’t look at each other. The silent one bowed his head, and folded his hands, as if this were a marriage ceremony now.

Then the spokesman (having communicated with his partner by law-enforcement telepathy through the back of his head) said, “Mr. Sproehnle, just leave the key where it is. Deputy Kinundrum will pull your car off to the side for you.”

He lifted an arm, inviting Virgil toward the white van. For a little interview. Because now he would have to be part of the investigation.









Part of the Investigation



Virgil sat in the passenger seat of the van. First, the man identified himself. He was Lieutenant Platzhalter, he was a navy officer, and he was with the U.S. Attorney’s office, not Fish and Wildlife – then he put an open notebook on his knee and listened, jotting down nothing at all, while Virgil went through his story – finding his own account short and uninteresting. As it should be. The lieutenant had a way of not responding, sitting far back inside his blind, saying nothing, which kept inviting Virgil out in the open.

But Virgil had nothing to hide. He wasn’t guilty of anything. He described Aardent Communications, and he mentioned his being a married man, and he mentioned the three-bedroom condo in the Marina. He told the story of Sabin Hansen down in Dominy Shores, and his own professional idea today of coming up here and scouting around. When he spoke the name Sabin Hansen, the lieutenant’s face showed no sign of recognition; but there may have been a certain surface stillness. The name didn’t get jotted in the notepad.

He mentioned Sheila, too, in terms that made it clear how blameless his intentions were – but there again, the man wore a special impassivity, implying a shuttered glimpse seeing adulterousness – because police types are a little bit disgusting to deal with, in their line of work, building legal cases incessantly in their minds, it’s evil within them; which they themselves plant. This thing “evil” or just human frailty condenses and beads up on that cold surface, the law. Lieutenant Platzhalter was no doubt filing away the thought Possible Adultery, while Virgil looked straight back at him. The police type has an indispensable usefuless in society but you want to have as little to do with them as possible. A man wants his own world, his own relevant, soft world.

There was a beeping sound. It came from a pager that lay on the dashboard. The lieutenant pressed its button and spoke, “Road. Go ahead. This is Platzhalter.”

The pager answered back. “We’re done. Bureau duster will be here.”

“Fast,” said the lieutenant.

Old bloke. Cooperative. The daughter is emotional, though.” The remote policeman had an accent that was probably Australian.

Platzhalter said, “That would be understandable.”

Like you better bring a tranq gun?”

That was a jest. Lieutenant Platzhalter sat thinking, chin tucked down in. Sheila was upset. When would they let him get to her?

The voice on the intercom added, “The old fellow did her paperwork for her. She’s a wildcat.”

“So you’ll be coming out.”

He’s cooperative. We’ll come past you in a minute. Fessler is securing the restraints. I’m signing off now. We’ll go all the way down and see you back at Golden Gate.”

The lieutenant turned off the pager.

Virgil hadn’t been mentioned. He wasn’t important. And would soon be let go. So he could get to her. He knew he had no rights in her world, but at this point he would do anything. In a time of confusion, anything she asked.

“Will I be able to go in?” he asked this Lieutenant Platzhalter.

Didn’t answer. Just zipped his windbreaker up to the neck – concluding another part of his day – and slid the notebook out on the deep table-like dashboard. Still the page was unwritten-on. Virgil hadn’t said anything significant.

“Is there any legal reason I couldn’t go in? Though I don’t know which house – ”

“We’re done here,” he said. Implying Virgil could do what he liked.

They’d already known about Sabin Hansen all along. The Homeowners Association – it’s possible that they did have a role in getting this started today.

Platzhalter opened his own door, telling Virgil, “You can exit the van.” He said to his partner, “They’re finished. They’re coming up the road. Nobody’s making the girl an accomplice, she’s just P.O.I.”

“Want to go in?”

“Sure. I’ll go. And he wants to see the young woman.”

Virgil hadn’t said exactly that. He’d said nothing like it.

“Let him take his own car,” said the other one, and he turned to the local deputy, “Thanks for everything. Before you file your report anywhere, we’ll need to see it.”

Virgil was standing in the middle of police business. He passed a vain, ironing hand down his shirt front. “You’re remarkably unsuspicious of me.”

“Of you? – However, we may contact you.”

The deputy, whose sunglasses were back in place, said, “Pardon me, sir,” and returned the car keys, complete with the plastic tag, FIVE PERCENT OFF All Purchases At COSTCO, gummy with the years’ personal grime, his personal DNA. A similar government van came up the road from the shut-down direction. It didn’t glide on past, it pulled to a stop – the window slid down – and the other FBI man told the driver, “Would you keep him in the sally? And not get started till we’re there?”

Virgil couldn’t see inside. The stepfather would be in a back seat, but there were no rear windows. He wanted to get to Sheila.

“Mr. Sproehnle,” the lieutenant said, “you can follow me in.” In his face there was no visible rebuke. It wasn’t his job to pass judgment on human inconstancy. His job was to show up later, after the all-too-natural consequences had ensued. He climbed into the van’s high throne. Virgil got into his own car, and the van started out and led the way with an exemplary slowness, finding the mouth of a gravel road right away.

The big vehicle lumbered ahead. There were potholes, and Virgil had to choose an edgewise path for his San Francisco car, to set his narrow tires on higher ground. Close-growing bushes made a scrape on the car’s yellow side-flesh. The driveway then opened out and leveled off and wound to the right through the trees. When the homestead came into view, the place was just a messy little shack. It was built as a series of additions. Other ambiguous low buildings seemed to wander toward the woods. Corrugated metal roofing. A blue tarp sufficed as a roof for a shed, held down by nailed-down strips of wood. Some of the buildings had plenty of plastic chimneys, vents of some kind. In a sunny meadow lay rectangular plots, many of them fallow. Little sprigs in rows. Each plot was divided into sections, marked by flags of Mylar. The whole operation was neat and organized. Beyond the house was a mobile-home trailer, long sunken in place.

Another van was parked in the dooryard, its rear doors open. It was being loaded with boxes from the house by two men – again plainclothes police, or FBI, dressed like guys on vacation, or golfers, nylon sports shirts and big wristwatches. Those black running shoes.

Virgil got out. One man was bringing out a heavy old computer-monitor, but it had been mummified in plenty of windings of see-through kitchen wrap. Another, bigger computer was belted round-and-round with yellow packing-tape, which read CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS. There were file boxes, stacks of account books and logbooks, lab equipment badly fiting into cardboard cartons, hardcovers and paperbacks, some in sealed Baggies.

Virgil had parked in imitation of Platzhalter’s van, under a big oak beside an old Volvo wagon that must be Sheila’s. Below the parking area, agriculture opened out; orchards on meadows; sections of rectangular marsh contained by earthen berms. Green shoots stood in squares of water, the rows labeled – “Minn-Nutmeat Chippewa,” “Oklahoma,” “Minn Ojibwa.” It was experimentation all right. It was imitations of indigenous farming, and Virgil loved to think of his Sheila in Mexico – in Oaxaca – a sun-browned little American girl walking past the native women who had pounded their corn into meal, then formed tortillas, then walked from their villages into town, barefoot on the gold soil of Mexico. In this Sheila, he’d come upon something he could never possess, something new in history. Which would outlast him. And which, then, he would miss out on. The main shack’s front door hung open. She wasn’t visible. The house had an aspect of artistic compilation. On a railing, odd-shaped stones were saved. An empty easel lay on its side, pigment-daubed, lying on a big kindling pile. The white skull of an animal – maybe deer – had been hung on the outside wall, along with a framed reproduction of a familiar picture: one of those old Flemish portraits, of a grim Renaissance scholar at a sloped writing-desk. Also beside the door hung a rain- and sun-bleached guitar, stringless, in a general atmosphere of cubism among sawn scraps of lumber and plywood.

The two FBI agents closed their van’s rear doors with a pair of final whams.

– Then she was there, in the doorway, it was Sheila, her mass of brown hair, she was wearing a bathrobe more worn out than Isobel’s, looking like flannel, or like childish flimsy felt. It was like a toy bathrobe. And she was barefoot, majestic though small, beautiful, so that Virgil was cast down, her hair barely contained, her cheeks blotchy. On her head was a telephone headset, like a halo, in her hand a cordless phone. Virgil was frozen in his tracks feeling somehow to blame for this.

The man in the windbreaker told Sheila, “Miss Carmel? I’m Special Agent Platzhalter.”

How embarrassed cops must sometimes feel. Routinely standing in the wreckage.

“We’re leaving now. Your father will be well taken care of. You’ll be notified of an arraignment. Everything will be down in San Francisco in the Federal Building. You have those numbers there. Officer Fessler also gave you the website, didn’t she? If you want to find your case status? A forensics team is coming to finish up on the outside. They’ll be here in a few minutes. This has all been explained to you. We thought first, before I go, maybe – did Officer Fessler answer all your concerns?” – Lieutenant Platzhalter, too, was cast down by her beauty.

Then she recognized Virgil, and for an instant she might have almost been glad. But then recognition turned into a look of making guesses. Before betrayal set in, she had looked befriended, she’d looked saved, then her thoughts went further and her eyes suddenly shrank and she brought her sight back to the lieutenant.

He was talking about bail hearings but nobody was listening, certainly not Sheila. His partners in the other vehicle were leaving. They got in their van and started the engine, without having made any greeting, or any goodbye to anyone. Platzhalter told Sheila, “This gentleman wanted to see you. Is it all right if we leave you with him?”

She turned in Virgil’s direction, with eyes that couldn’t look straight on but just wandered. “You fuckers,” she told him, or rather she told a space to one side of him. Since that didn’t suffice to express her feelings, she opened her mouth to add more but was too choked by a wealth of insult, by a conspiracy she seemed to see all around. He might have turned away, himself – or else come forward from this distance – but he couldn’t, he was petrified, he had this one piece of luck and responsibility he mustn’t walk away from: he was the first one on the scene.

The lieutenant offered, “Because if you’d rather be left alone – ”

“Sheila, I had no idea,” Virgil told her. “I had no idea even what – ” he turned his palms up to the whole situation.

She seemed to press her elbows hard into her waist. “You came to that café.” She couldn’t finish. She was astonished at the trap she saw laid around her.

She was wrong, but still, Virgil did have to turn a degree or two aside, because she was the snake-haired goddess. He felt physically threatened, even at this distance. “Sheila, I don’t know what conclusion you think you’ve jumped to.”

“All right–” the government man had been ready to leave, but now it seemed he would linger. “Miss Carmel, you just feel free to let our office know if you need anything. Officer Fessler particularly. She’s the one you should call if you need any information. Or anything at all. The numbers you were given, they’d be on her business card, those are her pager and cell phone and everything, so you can get her any time instantly. Forensics will be here in just a few minutes. They’ll take the rest of the evidence. You’ve been told, now: if you break any of those seals on those things, it’s a federal crime. They’ll be here – forensics will be here – any minute.”

Sheila wasn’t going to answer. She was looking away, in disbelief at her ambush. So Platzhalter said, “All right then.” He was going to turn to his van.

Virgil told her, “All I know is what I learned in that one conversation. Whether – for example, who your father is – I have no idea who your father is. I don’t know. I got your address from the…” he gestured. “I found you from the bulletin board in town. I came up here on business, for Aardent, for my company, but I had no idea.”

She stared at him – maybe she believed him, or maybe she didn’t – with this government man here – then she turned and went inside. The implication might be that maybe he could come in.

But he sure wouldn’t. He’d stay right here. She looked slightly violent. At her side, her hand had kept opening and closing.

Virgil wanted to catch Platzhalter’s eye – maybe for just a glance of consolation – or just a shrug – but he was getting back to his van, no longer to stay as audience, for these declarations like movie dialogue. A law-enforcement man ought to stick around, just in case. It should be routine procedure. Not to just leave people. Already he was up in the throne behind the windshield, and the van made the high whinnying and then the roar, an engine kept in proper tune by fleet mechanics in the government pool. It was bridled slipping into gear, and its large-size tires began crushing twigs and popping gravel. Power-steering led it in a circle to go back down the drive. Maybe it was department policy: from here on, none of this was investigators’ business.

In the empty shack doorway, Sheila Carmel’s bathrobed, violin-shaped figure wasn’t going to reappear. With one hand she had angrily sawed a wandering tress back away from her neck, and then tightened her cloth belt, and then vanished.

But the door was open. Virgil went up. “Sheila. I want to explain to you.”

“What do you think you have to do with our lives?” She was back, directly in his face.

“Let me just know if I can help.”

“You get out of here.” A computer keyboard was in her hands, which for some reason she threw on the kindling pile. She had a phone, and she snapped the cord connecting it to her headset, and she stepped off the brink and started using it as a weapon. She tried to hit his face, but it was his neck she got, because he moved. So she kept trying, saying low, “You fucker, get out of here.” He was telling her, quite audibly, to wait a minute and just calm down, though it seemed as if calming down wasn’t going to happen. In this dooryard, if he did want to run away, there was escape in any direction. She kept telling him to get out of here, but she was hitting him, and an attack isn’t an invitation to leave. It’s hard to open your car door and take refuge inside while someone is directly, intimately attacking. He mostly kept staying out of her reach – a cordless phone is sharp-edged and painful – how would he explain scratches or bruises to Isobel back home? – but a little pain was almost like admission to a privilege, in this strange moment when she seemed to think she had every right to hit him, and he was willing to seem to accept a little blame and a sort of accidental complicity. Because now he was part of her life and he was, accidentally, somewhat complicit. “You wreck, you have wrecked,” she said, all the while speaking low, as if just to herself. She actually thought she had a right to do this. That was the miracle he didn’t understand. She was following him striking him, now in a circle, and this would be slightly funny if viewed from outside, but then she landed one hard blow on his ear and it wasn’t funny. His ear chimed inside like the ringing of a taut balloon. He batted her flying hand away. The police van by now was down the road. The blow to his ear angered him, piggishly. Nobody ever hit him. The ringing sound in his ear was expanding, it wasn’t diminishing, and there can be permanent damage. When he cowered, she came at him all the more. He just put up his forearms.

This was all as if he were guilty. She got her talons on his wrist and she hung and tried to kick. She seemed, in this, to trust him. She had been on the brink of weeping: there’d been that humidity, when she first came at him. But no more. Now combat made her serious, and somehow satisfied her and cleared everything up for her. He stumbled and she followed, getting her fingers latched onto his collar, trying to step high, and maybe step on him – on his leg or foot or something. This was a side of her personality he would never have suspected. Now it mattered that he was married. Then one little hand came up from nowhere and landed one really good bang beside his nose, where pain invaded his sinuses and prevented him from seeing. “Ow,” was all he said. Then, “May I explain to you? For just one minute, you putch?” he finished, in a mixed-up word that was maybe going to be bitch or something. He may have lost politeness. He was perhaps required now, or entitled, to do a couple of regrettable things, and he swung around on her to find her robe open revealing breasts flipping as she climbed at him. He got a grip on her head with both hands. Her phone headset was still on. Before her lips, that disconnected foam bud still hovered. She was glassy-eyed with her head in the vise of his two hands.

She thrust her robe’s lapels together, using both hands. His hold on her head seemed to stop her inward alarm from going off. Maybe she was starting to see this was all a mistake and she’d had enough. They were both breathing hard, he watching her close, while she wouldn’t meet his eyes.

So he loosened his grip. They were both tired. Her two fists kneaded her robe’s lapels together, cheap old flannel – she was standing bridally too near him – and she did a strange thing, she let her face descend, into the gap between them, she swayed, and her forehead made contact with his collarbone. She hardly had any idea who he was. He lifted his hands away, his arms guarding her aura but not settling. In tangency’s dampness there was an immediate, different problem, it was a problem for both, it was obvious, it was inevitable, it was in the logic of how their bodies together might congest and occlude and she plainly could feel the same thing, because her hands were clenched hard together at the lapels of her robe, and she kept them like that, mashing fists below her throat – as she then bestirred herself, lifted her forehead away, and turned from him.

She was embarrassed – she was probably mortified – and she was going to disappear back into the house. The surface of his own chest where she’d pulled away was cold, healthily. He took a breath, of superiority in this situation, and annoyance with hysterical emotions.

He thought he might follow her just to the doorway. Then at the threshold she spun and pushed him, so hard it knocked him over. Leather bomber-jacket, new jeans, he was in the dust. Now, therefore, she was actually “crazy” – and that idea satisfied him, for some reason it pleased him. She clambered forward on him and would be trying to keep him from getting up, though she wasn’t heavy enough, while she started looking around for something. The easel from the firewood pile was there. She grabbed one leg of it, but its hinges flopped open, the whole thing was jointed and unwieldy. So she dropped it. She wouldn’t have actually hit him with it. She wasn’t that “crazy.” He started getting away by twisting – no doubt injuring the brand-new antique-looking leather jacket. He was able to hop up to his feet, but she sprang up and kept going, as hard as ever, her eyes humid again. He was putting a little distance between them, in a limping canter, in a semi-circle, but her sharp fingers got a grip on his ear. And her free hand was hitting, so he had to somehow tunnel out of this. Her robe had again fallen open, but nobody was around. They were both standing, and this woman wanted to seriously knee him in the groin or something. She was lining him up. As if for a dance. She wouldn’t really knee his groin, because it was against the rules, and because by now, in a shared breathing, they had joined in some unearthly agreement, as she kept very successfully steering him backward with her force, her breasts churning and orbiting. He reached for her head again, but it turned into a sharp grasp of her very thick hair, and he pulled this girl Sheila’s head to one side, saying, “Would you listen for one second?” He wished there were a witness present, to verify the absurdity, but then he thought, no, he wanted to have this to himself, because the general feeling was, he had nothing to apologize for. She braced herself, and her bare foot came down along his shin, it pushed his knee hard, making gristle pop under the kneecap. He had to let go. A serious knee problem would make him stop. He bent and put one hand on the ground to support himself. A serious knee problem would also have to be explained to Isobel. The girl’s authority towered above him in the parted robe, the Medusa hair, and the kind of breasts that stand out high, higher than Isobel’s, and bigger, while he was definitely stuck on the ground in pain, so he was certainly no threat, keeping his one knee-hinge unbent.

Anyway then, he got up and, harder than he should have, but with entitlement, he gave her a good push. It made her sit down, on the threshold of her cabin door, and he pressed his advantage and held her shoulders on the floor. Now there was a new reason for this. That’s what he told himself, like any man whose excuse is extremity, and honesty for once; because her claws might have kept trying for his face but they didn’t. Instead she was telling him quietly you fucker, almost smiling with it, indeed literally smiling in a kind of wonder, and a kind of despair, in her eyes the glassy blindness scanning him, he could be anybody, he could be the sky: she’d stopped struggling, though still stiffened in an arch, and she was just observing the whole general idea of him. Her phone headset was still in place, a tiara that somehow survived the fight, wire connection torn, deaf microphone at her lips, into which she whispered again you fucker, her breasts aimed up, twin masses piled on her ribcage, not quaking as Isobel’s peculiarly more gelatinous breasts would, though now her hip bucked and twisted under him, she was so strong, and she snarled the little prayerful imprecation, you fucker, tears pooled at her eyes and brimming.

He went limp. This was over. In exhaustion, or as if it were a confession of defeat or even “sorriness,” he lay heavily on her. The two of them were lying halfway in the house. Halfway out the door. Some people called “forensics” were supposed to arrive. The lieutenant had said a few minutes. Virgil wasn’t a large man and he knew he wasn’t an uncomfortable burden, but still he was weighing her down. Whatever might happen, this would be a cause for serious remorse, it was altogether unlike him – he put his forehead on her shoulder – they were out in the open on the threshold, no one was here, the forensics people weren’t here – and not only did he want it, in this other life parallel to his real life, but he had the idea, seriously, that she would be satisfied somehow, the old f-word on her lips. In her life, this day had brought a terrible knock on her door, and this, now, was a way out. The hips were wider than Isobel’s, joined to a waist so small it seemed sculpted, the little arch requiring a hand whose grip was praise. His own shirt buttons were too many, so he pulled them apart. She’d stopped using the word fucker in his ear, or in the dead microphone, and her hands on his back found his shirt fabric, the passage between her legs already complicit, entry totally unresistant, he was entering into pure recognition somewhere, and there were tears, wet beneath his own cheek, the profound smell of a woman’s tears, entrusted to his nostrils, pungent sebaceous rainy-day smell, ancient smell in evolution, a woman’s tears.

So he lifted and looked to her – and she to him – and they seemed to share one thing only: worry; so he put his face back again, and they entered together into a darkness, into a flood, against the current working together at the floor of a terrible swift river progressing into that old cliché instant of immortality, toward the shared shudder always instantly regrettable, because a quiver in the depth might engender, on any day, a first slippery fin-like motion, yet Virgil kept moving his barb deep and held it deep as long as he could when their mouths had come together, and that was the morally reckless part – this wasn’t like him, he was not this kind of human being – except that, apparently he was, at least here in this other world – until in the first quiet, afterward, he immediately received guilt. Guilt right away, it descended so fast, he wasn’t able to take much of a breath under the weight of it, because for Sheila, this was the worst day in her life. Also, after this, now any number of things would happen. And so, in a darkening silence, a wreck seemed to be settling on a sea-floor, taking a long time doing it. In their exhaustion, there were only forest sounds, breezes. Until, however, Sheila grumbled, “Well, shit,” withdrawing her arm, putting the back of her hand on her forehead. He checked and her eyes were open. She was looking at the ceiling, and she said, “That was stupid.”



It’s obvious. His fellow-Cadet could actually be regarding the scene with approval – or, at least, with fascination. Boaz had come storming into the Office, but he finds his fellow-Cadet at cloud’s edge, reposing on one hip, nymph-on-a-riverbank, actually rapt with interest.

They’d wanted a chance for sin but nobody wanted this. At least Boaz, he could never have foreseen this. This was never in Virgil’s character. This is some kind of blight from somewhere. It must come from the same place as the Louisiana casino. He can’t look. He can’t go to the edge and look down. As Guardian he always worked for Virgil’s stability, yet beside him, all the while, his fellow-Cadet was devoted to sin of the coarsest, easiest kind. So, a mortal man is this botched, half-imagined creature.

Hokhma, clambering up from her recumbency, crosses the office floor in front of him (the phony stagy shuffle, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed) saying, “I know. I saw.”

This is her version of enacting some kind of dismay.

“Well, there you have it,” Boaz tells her.

She is capable of looking straight down at it, while Boaz, as long as the scene is playing out, will be constrained to lift his vision upon high. He sets a hand on the rim of the sink to steady himself.

“Don’t be an ass, Boaz, it’s just more than we petitioned.”

He ought to have have known she’d take this tone. The capacity of woman for not lowering the boom on males has surely always been a central – a really central – part of the problem. It’s like a mysterious preference for blindness while perhaps they’re telling themselves it’s some kind of a hopeful charity.

“You’re finding this tolerable,” he accuses her. Her kind of ethics will be able to flourish now. For Tribulations now are supposed to cease. Cease everywhere, and for all time. All the Time that remains. She seems to lack the slightest twinge of any accountability, as Virgil Sproehnle’s Guardian.

“Listen to me, Hokhma. This could be how things are now, from now on. Where’s Mischal?” – because there exists a certain ominous document she isn’t aware of. It came in the dumbwaiter this morning. “Have you seen him?”

“I know, he’s always gone, he used to be here every morning.”

“Well, listen to me, he didn’t empty the dumbwaiter. It hadn’t been sorted or even touched—”

In the dumbwaiter there’d been a fresh-published booklet from the Praesidium describing a so-called New Dispensation. “Hohkma, this Office received something. It’s about how things will be now. I wish you would check the IN box sometimes.”

He takes the big booklet off the top of the stack.


Proceedings of the Praesidium. Initial Prospectus, New Covenant, Reconciled Redeemed Universe


“You’d better just look at it. You’ll see. God will be punished. He’s the one. And give up His transcendence. In eternal punishment. Read it.”

“‘The one?’”

“He’s the one.”

She accepts the booklet, but she’s looking at him as if maybe this is just a funny jest or maybe he himself could be slightly unhinged. Anyway she opens the new agreement, all hundred pages of it, a half-inch thick. With a thumbnail she lets ticking pages go past.

It is truly – admittedly – an obscene idea. Just now in describing it, the vision that invaded Boaz’s mind was obscene, the Lord in some helpless condition being punished. The Lord and Creator without His transcendence.

Hokhma puts it down on the table, as if not wanting it in her hands, and looks down at it, putting both little fists together at her throat below her chin.

She suggests, “That probably… can’t be how things are.”

God in some degraded form subordinated to some higher authority: it’s not only unethical to imagine, it’s impossible. Theologically it’s impossible.

“It’s Self-inflicted,” Boaz parrots the language of the memo. As if it explained much. “The Creator will be the one. This is the agreement, Hokhma. Everybody else gets out of Hell. Literally, everybody else is in Heaven. Read it.”

“What is?” she says.

“What is what?”

“What is Self-inflicted?”

She doesn’t seem to get it. “He’s the one, Hokhma. I suppose He’ll have to find, or I suppose appoint, agents for His annihilation.”

“Well, no, then that’s not ‘God.’ It isn’t possible.”

Of course she’s exactly right but it’s what’s spelled out there, and the memo is from the Praesidium. It’s stamped with the sigillum. Many questions are going to branch out – topmost why, but even more strange, how? Because it is literally impossible, she’s right.

“Oh—” now she thinks she can guess the outcome. “Lucifer is going to sit on the Throne.”

“No. You have to read it. Lucifer just wants to fade back in and forever join the humble—” he sighs. “Humble throngs.”

She’s narrowing her eyes.

“There’s going to be no government, Hokhma. And no Law. Only Love. It says, ‘Love inscribed in every heart.’ That will be the only kind of government after a certain point: love. Except for–”

His hand goes out, somewhere toward the One Who alone will suffer in Hell.

Hokhma seizes up and flies off on an angle in a whole different key, “But don’t you just sometimes look at an Angel like Mischal, though? And think ‘What in the world?’ You know? Or think sometimes, ‘Why, he’s almost like a Device!’”

Typical Hokhma. Typical non sequitur. Typical dodge to the irrational.

“Do you know what I mean? It’s as if an Angel Ordinary has no other half, like no shadow. An Angel! An Angel was created without… without ambivalence… without…” her one hand lifts and undergrasps an invisible bunch, a nothingness there.

He looks upon her outburst (and upon her whole vulgar way of thinking) with revulsion. Not just revulsion but pure, cool incomprehension. Which is preferable. Incomprehension: it’s a gift, keep it intact.

“Since you seem to be serious, Hokhma, I’ll say no, I never have such thoughts. Mischal is a blessed being. He was created in grace. An Angel is simply in grace, and that’s the only way to think of it. An Angel is an incalculable being.”

“Boaz?” She looks pained and anxious. “I think Mischal is the Archangel.”

Her funny little face is poked forward in complete sincerity.

She often gets bizarre ideas like this that need to be dismissed before they can take root. But what he comes out with, instead, is, “That’s a funny one.” With a snort.

She checks the open doorway – open doorway where Mischal has not appeared all day – and then in speaking, she makes one of her odd gestures: she uses both her small hands to censor her mouth so she’s talking through her fingers’ basketwork, “Haven’t you ever wondered why we in this Office have such a… exalted Ordinary?”

Honestly, no. Honestly, he supposed it was because they merit it. Mischal is simply a very accomplished old Angel.

“And think about it.” Her fingers still cup her mouth, holding this back with both hands but also letting it out. “Why has he been asked, way down here, to go up and act as liaison?”

She is actually proposing that they’ve been working side by side with a legendary supernal Being, the Archangel Mikha’il.

He pictures their Mischal, all these years, rising every morning before his Cadets, starting the coffeemaker for everybody. Doting on the Weather Page through a groggy eternity. Looking down over some remote steppe and seeing one little struggling weed as the most poignant event in History. Bending over a sprout of parking-lot crabgrass, looking like he could weep with joy.

“Remember in those missives?” she points at the dumbwaiter. “Mischal was called ‘he of the Sword and the Scales.’ That would be the Angel in Last Retribution. Who Leads the Hosts. Banishes Darkness. That’s the True Archangel Mikha’il.”

Boaz risks a glance down in Earth at their mortal man.

And here is how History has dwindled. The mortal man post-coitus is actually lying there on the floor thinking his victim is going to ask him for a ride somewhere, because her own car is impounded, and – the implication is – the victim will have already forgiven him. That’s literally what he is half-expecting. Also, the mortal man doesn’t realize it but he is lying there waiting, in his vague way, for his victim to offer him lunch.

This will be the world without justice or reason.

Also, it’s been evident, she’s right. It’s undeniable, there is something troubling going on with their Angel Ordinary.

Boaz turns to the so-called Prospectus, where it lies on the table, and picks it up. He won’t be able to read it. The eyes can’t fight a hectic mist. Instead he turns and holds the pages out at Hokhma, giving them a choking rattle. “This is not possible if you consider what the Creator is, and continues to be.”

She has no answer. She just looks down in Earth, peaceful-looking Earth, redeemed, immune, scot-free Earth.

The worst seems to be over now in the cabin below, where the pair of them, motionless as a printed rune on the floor, the two mortals in the odor of their remorse will be, themselves, entering a kind of new dispensation indeed, a dispensation all their own, lying across the threshold, mortal bodies making their recuperative pulse, separately.

The Angels had hardly begun with him. And now, the evidence is, this will be a world without reason and without Tribulation.

She gets an idea, grasping for a bit of logic, and whines, “God can’t be delivered to Hell, He created Hell.”

All he can think is, Well, I guess there just has to be somebody – but is isn’t worth saying. He puts the thick memo back in the IN box.

He and Hokhma are turned away from each other. There’s something here they aren’t saying. – If there are to be no more Tribulations, what will an Office like this one do? There’ll be no reason for this Office’s existence. All these Offices of Guardianship. Actually, one might not feel quite ready for Beatitude yet. Not if Beatitude – where nothing will be at stake anymore – will seem like a condition of complete finishedness.









On Earth in the Cabin Doorway




New dispensation is right. They lay battered and breathing, and Sheila’s first thought was that this was an inexcusable stupidity but that she’d always been disinclined to blame herself. She always did let herself off the hook. There was no hook, for her. It was how she was constituted, with an amorality from back in Connecticut and New York and Cranbrook, never able to really disapprove of herself, no matter what unbecoming foolish scenes might sometimes befall – even now with Bob in a white van, riding away so docilely, and all the computers everywhere bound in stretchy cellophane.

It was thanks to her mom she was such a spoiled girl and so unexplainable. It would always be her special advantage in life, impunity. Lying on the board floor, her flannel robe badly arranged, impractical daughter, this was shameful and embarrassing and, possibly, also inconvenient this morning, maybe stupidly inconvenient, because with federal charges issued against her stepfather, she had work to do – particularly in finding bail money – with now this person on her hands, “Virgil Sproehnle.” And redirecting Seed Bank business. Even summoning a board meeting on short notice, possibly. Getting interns back in. Because all the grasses needed nutrient assays. And now would come an awkward hour with this man Virgil she knew almost nothing about, an hour of picking things over, gently unsticking contact. It was obvious that this Virgil, this Mr. Sproehnle, was no conspirator with the police, he wasn’t anybody, he was an unwitting average guy. Average guy tangled up with her. Average guy who’d just just gone along with her into risk of pregnancy. Which was her roll of the dice, not his. and her grief.

Midday birdsong – of all things! – was coming from the usual distances in the forest, from the dense cedars along the driveway, grosbeaks and jays, and the one junco who perches exclusively on the peak of the first greenhouse. This time of year, little chorus frogs kept up their noises even in the afternoons. If this forensics team was going to arrive, she would be able to hear them coming a long way off, coming up Lime Kiln and then the gravel drive. And have time to get up off the doorway threshold.

The lawyers’ and the accountant’s phone numbers would be in the address book. And board members’ numbers, and interns’ numbers.

However, the police had taken the address book. How was she supposed to function without the address book?

How stupid she was, at this moment, was a circumstance she wouldn’t contemplate. Her phone would have the San Francisco accountant’s number, and the accountant would have the lawyers’ numbers. She had rolled away from the lucky errant suburban husband who was so proud of his car. And she had tucked her knees up, pulling over her hip the bathrobe she’d owned since she was a child, the bathrobe that had done service through all her dorm years at Cranbrook, and at dusty evenings in the Berkshires at Camp Say-Along, and a poolside at some friend’s club in Maine in a summer when she was feeling broken-hearted, the hem blueberry-stained on yet another occasion during a television movie at home alone in New York. This very bathrobe had been purchased by her mother at Bloomingdale’s, as part of her equipage for first going away to Cranbrook, at the end of an ultimate summer of childhood, the summer of The Police and Dire Straits and Billy Joel, the summer of the Plymouth Duster, and high-cut bathing suits and SweetTarts candy – her cute romance with SweetTarts’ sour chalk. In her last week at home, taken shopping, at the age of fourteen she had gone along with her mother in the heat of the New York City August, feeling petulant (and conscious of dwelling in her own petulance, for one last time there abiding), from the parking-garage to the hot streets of the city, to the revolving door’s brief capsule of pressure – complaining to her mother all the way – all her complaints then coolly embalmed by the leather-smell inside Bloomingdale’s. In a fitting room a shopgirl measured her for blouses. Sheila had stood on a stool and held her arms straight out on either side feeling like an Olympic diver on a high platform, putting forward her chest with its slight cakes displaying the body she knew she was preparing for the sexual arena as her mother liked to upset her by joking that there would be attention from boys at boarding school. And here she was now. Boys, since that afternoon, had come in a few different forms, there had been egotists and there had been shy boys, there was sour intercourse extorted by unfair manipulation, once or twice there’d been promiscuity and then riddance. But now, this time she’d been really snuffed was the feeling, at the strangest moment of her life, by this married man from San Francisco, whom she’d, admittedly, hit with the phone. And whose cowering she’d found ridiculous and almost kind of charming, from a schiziphrenic vantage-point inside her own clanging mind, while she struck him. Also, unfortunately for her personal authority, there had been an orgasm, fast, unaccustomed, first an ominous central effort to keep still and flat, so she wouldn’t flow over the lip, then great churning swallows, in a series of plunges, any recovery of dignity slipping from her grasp. Like a terrible parody of rescue he had shown up, a married businessman, the man most conventional, the man most earnest, the man of a hesitant complexity in the glance, the man who was afraid of getting near a dead raccoon. Bob had been led off in white plastic handcuffs. Bob had actually conversed amicably with his arresting officers. Now, surreally, the married man lay beside her in a kind of connubiality trusting her.

Then he sighed. And when he did, it came from within a difficulty of emotion she hadn’t expected.

This, for him, was an ethical predicament, of course. She found that disappointing somehow. How much time-wasting, oversensitive niggling was foreshadowed by that sigh.

How to get him out of here. It would be wise for her to mistrust her own decision-making processes, for just a few minutes. She’d been through a series of totally unaccustomed crises, crises of different sorts, and she told herself don’t do any judging: don’t make any decisions right now; let the body, first, throb back down to normal dimensions. Virgil Sproehnle stirred around and he lifted his head – (she had to roll one slitted eye to see) – and he started dragging himself, on all fours crawling to a distance, his pants snagging, the average male ropy ass furtive, sloped like a wrist. He was still wearing his brown leather jacket. Now he would want to hash things out. Talk things over. He would start to cultivate this mistake as if this were a garden. He got to the wing chair and dragged himself up into it, and he sat there and hung his head and released a very big breath, and he said, “Sorry,” adding, “Y’okay?”

Sorry. This was more than just ethical qualms, this was contriteness, etc. – which was an interpretation of events that caused a physical prickling, a contamination of anger. What they’d done was stupid, it wasn’t only stupid, it was unwise – but she didn’t want “sorriness” from him. She didn’t know what she wanted, but she didn’t want sorry, exactly.

Actually, she knew what she wanted. She wanted to get to work on getting Bob free. Accountant in San Francisco, lawyer in Philadelphia, broker in New York, board of directors via email, interns down at Davis. Virgil Sproehnle was going to have to be helpful in her life now, in some way. It was irrelevant if she’d ever found him attractive. Or found him disturbing, or distracting, right from when he came into the café, with an elegant hitch in his walk, and the little overbite.

Sitting in the wing chair, he seemed to be kicking off his hobbling pants. The tink of the belt buckle’s brass clapper.

Then she could hear him stand up and go into the kitchen – because apparently he was going to undertake the strangest ceremony of repentance: she could hear him lift the teakettle – he was looking for the makings of tea – she could hear him finding the old tea-ball in the drawer, its chain’s jingle, the scumbling sound of its two perforated aluminum hemispheres, being joined by the screw-threads at its equator. Then he was opening the drawer by the sink.

He must be walking around wearing a leather jacket but no pants. He’d lain beside her with his eyes closed. For he seemed to trust her. Trust her not to go in the kitchen and get, what, a knife? If you think you’ve forced yourself on a woman, you ought to be slightly worried about retaliation or being reported to the police. It was either trustfulness or else thoughtless egotism. In the same kitchen where her stepfather had held out his wrists for scuffed white plastic handcuffs, and then ankle-restraints with the extra Velcro hobbling straps, now the man from the suburbs was making tea. No doubt his wedding ring was still on his finger. She hadn’t looked. He was married. He was married and he was thinking he’d forced himself on her. And clothes that looked commercially laundered and pressed. This was not her kind of person. He was one of these people who double-parks in front of a city laundry and picks up his shirts in blue-paper packages – his yellow car blocking traffic meanwhile. She got the reassuring certainty, somehow, that there were no children.

Undaunted by their poor-folks’ technology, he worked the pump handle beside the sink to bring up water from the springbox. Then he found the box of wooden matches and he lit the gas ring, with a pop. All this she listened to from the doorsill where she lay, with grains of river sand beneath her ear on the floor, which had been deposited by her sandals over the months and years here. This was her home. She was a girl here.

What to do with him. Her weakness was, she wasn’t a very practiced “user,” or manipulator, she wasn’t accustomed to a sort of guiltiness in a man, and she actively disliked it. Some women have a way of putting men to better purposes, but she was never able to be like that. Maybe she was more unthinking, or candid, or heedless. So, maybe she was even naïve, but she wanted to stay naïve. So she was keeping a little innocence in the world, in the sacrificial form of herself.

On the floorboards, in the shade from high cedars, fuzzy coins of sunlight opened and closed, just as they used to do, in remotest childhood. A seeping could be stopped by the flannel robe in a single slatternly old poke of efficiency she remembered now. She would be doubly stupid if she didn’t make a priority of looking into birth control, right away this week among all her other emergencies: see Bess Steinbaum in her office and ask for a test, or a prescription, or just advice, or some morning-after remedy. From the kitchen came the sound of the lidded wooden box where he would be finding teabags – he had given up looking for loose tea. Those teabags were old and stale. The gas jet under the teakettle continued its hiss. Inside the kettle, the coiled serpent of warmth made its first rustlings.

Then he sat down. She could hear the seat-cushion springs in the wing chair, a partly naked man, carrying his dowsing penis around this house, the house where Dr. Robert Newton had just been arrested. The police had kept calling him Professor. When she told all the police to get out, it was ridiculous of her to pick up a computer keyboard as a weapon. Well, now she certainly seemed to have a kind of “boyfriend.” A boyfriend who seemed to think he had done something atrocious, at the most inauspicious moment of her life, and yet he was still here. He said, softly, as if continuing a conversation, “Yeah, my wife – her name is Isobel – ”

There was a sound of his pulling the woollen shawl from the back of that chair, draping himself in it. “You’ll see,” he added.

She knew if she liked, she could throw him out and he’d go. There existed a civility: he would go if he were told. But it was necessary for a while to lie still and let a tide go on withdrawing, to reveal the cold hard sandbar that was her life now. Evidently there would be tea, for starters. She knew she would always have a dependable strong will, and in fact, most people usually were a little bit dithering compared to her. And the guiding spirit of her mother was all around her now. For a minute she might feel unsorted, temporarily.

But she got herself in motion: she rolled over and pushed herself to her feet.

He was naked-legged all right, sitting in the wing chair, but covered by the shawl. He had put off the leather jacket. And still wore his torn-open shirt.

She came to the kitchen retying her bathrobe, to get down the jar of decent tea and fill the tea-ball. It was a way of beginning to take power. But it felt like the first allowance of forgiveness – or at least could be misconstrued that way: the motions felt wrongly wifely. She only meant to make the way clear, to begin showing him the easy way out the door, with a little compassion for him right now, while she figured out what to do with him. He didn’t lift his eyes to look at her. He was pale, sunken-chested.

“It’s that you are… of course…,” he said, rolling a hand toward her, not daring to look in her direction.

That was supposed to be a kind of compliment, a tribute to her beauty. Which had goaded him to Wild Abandon. He, all the while, kept his eyes down.

Then he added as if it were relevant, “I love her,” and glanced up.

Now he was talking about his wife.

A funny old word from her mother’s generation came to mind, schnook, maybe he was a schnook, here in the house sitting in the wing chair confessing love for his wife. Well, but he was her schnook at this moment; and, according to a hopleless kind of code of valor that might be hers alone, a “love” feeling had already inserted its thorn, honestly. Which was nothing more than a post-sex instinct, clinically shown to be hormonal, evolved in females as part of an elaborate protocol for species’ reproduction. She pulled from the mugs the two stupid teabags he’d found, and she threw them in the compost bucket. A stiffness was in her neck, from the overhanging general insult of his seeing her as a victim.

“She’s got my, I want to say, ‘fidelity.’ I would do anything not to hurt her. She’s marvelous.”

Well, that was fine. Good for his wife. However, the marriage was more complicated than that. You don’t say She’s marvelous about your wife. He’d spoken those words in a certain kind of rueful tone.

A minute ago, too, he’d said, You’ll see. On that, hung a strange kind of future.

His head was bowed. His nose was bony at the bridge; as he aged it would develop a high prominent arch that would be distinguishing to him, a good nose for a man named Virgil. Like a Dante nose. Maybe he was in his early forties. The eye-socket bone showed a rim of taut shininess in permanent suntan, something she’d always found strangely moving, a masculine fatigue, she was so peculiar and perverse in discoveries of tendernesses.

It had nothing to do with anything particular but she could easily start crying in a minute, triumphantly, if she didn’t control herself. Which would be ridiculous. The white plastic handcuffs had had scuff marks, from previous uses. Meanwhile she transferred tea, by pinches, into the tea-ball. She’d done the right thing, taking over the tea-brewing, because it reversed their relationship and made him the convalescent. Her the administrator. From this day on, she would have to be strong. Or rather, she would have to guard her weaknesses. And a lot of patience would be necessary, while the legal system churned. See what the errant PR man might amount to. First save him from his guilty feelings, before he could start being remorseful and scraping around.

It was a remarkable thing he’d said: You’ll see. The implication was that one day she would meet this wife.

“You mean – ,” she said, and she stopped, because she mistrusted her voice. From the throat tremor, it was clear she ought to get him out of the house.

“However things work out,” he said. He pulled the shawl up higher over him.

She stood still, expecting more from him, watching the kettle with x-ray vision. Inside, pinpoint air-bubbles like carbonation would be clinging over the floor, specks of nothingness being born, in the midst of solid water. First just a spinning comma. And whorls conceive. Already, if inconsequentially, the kettle roared.

He then made the stipulation – and he was almost accusatory – “I don’t know anything about you.”

While she watched the kettle, with the corner of her eye she kept the new boyfriend-shaped object in view, the married man.

He readjusted his position and tugged the shawl around, still not lifting his eyes.

Then he did look up. “I’ll be looking into it: Your father can be out on bail by tomorrow.” He had no idea what he was talking about.

Her teeth nibbled at her lower lip: it felt like a whole new mannerism, but it was something from way back, something from girlhood she’d almost forgotten: the soft dent of teeth against lip.

He went on, “Whatever the legal situation is, don’t worry. I want you not to worry about that. But tell me one thing that’s important. Did he do it?”

Her vision kept shrinking on the teakettle, threatening to close out the world. Weakness was always a possibility. She turned to the sink, with a shrug. Which must mean yes, it’s true, he did it. He did destroy federal property on a huge scale.

The sound of a car came from outside. She saw through the open doorway, a white station wagon came around the bend in the driveway, followed by a second station wagon exactly like it. This was forensics.

They weren’t going to park in the obvious place under the oak. They stopped. Then they backed up – to pull off on one side.

Surely he heard them, but he didn’t move 0r seem to care.

“You want to get dressed,” she told him.

Saying it made her feel, strangely, like somebody who could tell him to do things.

This man had, by one stupid act, risked destroying what he’d built in his life, the whole house-in-the-suburbs existence, or whatever. He didn’t seem an idiot, basically. He’d never done anything like this ever before, and at this point he was trying to see what he could shore up now, by his old methods. By niceness. By fairness. Whatever might be his deficiencies, in character or sophistication, that mouth would always have a certain power over her, salient of lip, pleated at the upper midpoint, clever-little-boyish. Such were her weaknesses of character. Because of a lip, a man could be forgiven. She would always be the troublesome Upper-West-Side girl, and a certain Virgil Sproehnle was going to be lucky because this particular selfish, troublesome woman could see he was a bit complicated, stringy in the muscles, his flesh coffee-smelling in an appealing way. The ears stuck out. Still, she did want him out the door. She wanted to make an appointment right away with Bessie Steinbaum at her clinic, just in case.

The cars at the far end of the clearing had opened up. Men were getting out, taking off sunglasses, squinting, looking around, Sacramento types. In the sunny patch they came together to talk, three men.

On one of the cars, the rear tailgate was designed to drop down low on tricky hinges, and it released a big plastic tool chest, on stilted wheels like a gurney. The lid of the tool chest was lifted.

While she watched, they pulled out white jumpsuits, reflective in the direct sun and shedding clouds of glory, which they started climbing into, with built-in feet, baggy, loose but snagging – and built-in white hoods that went over the head and snapped under the chin. The crime-scene equipment box stood open. Held to its inner lid, by elastic straps, was a handful of teddy bears and stuffed animals, Winnie the Poohs and koalas and Raggedy Anns and a smiling purple dinosaur.

She said to Virgil, still mostly unclothed in the wing chair, “What is this?”

He, in sorriness, didn’t stir. He was a lucky man. She just couldn’t think of a use for him yet. He looked utterly useless.

It was strange to think: Lucky man. Lucky man right here.

Outside, in their white costumes, they snapped their cuffs at the wrists and pulled on gloves. One had a video camera; the other had sterile white gauze swatches, and Ziploc bags with opaque white rectangles for writing ID information. They were the same kind of bags she used here in the lab.

So these intruders were going to start out over the dooryard, deploying as if the place were land-mined – but a heavier engine sound arrived at the mouth of the driveway. It was a tow truck, the big flatbed kind. The woman officer, Fessler, had warned her. The Volvo would be taken as evidence.

A more realistic panicky despair arrived then. Her stepfather would perhaps really not be released on bail. Probably not. These people would try to cause as much suffering as they could. Because they were building a case, and Bob really did do it. The third guy was jotting at spots on a clipboard, about to approach the house. He seemed the man in charge. Sheila in her hopelessness was physically weightless.

She told Virgil, “You’d better get dressed fast.” She drew further back in the kitchen. The man with the clipboard had paused on the dooryard soil, which of course was a rich midden of clues, and he turned and walked back, telling the two sterile angels, “Do the car first.” Back at the big toolcase – the one with the cuddly animals frolicking in their elastic restraints on the inner lid – he retrieved an aerosol can. And a plastic case and a roll of tape. All this he passed into the receiving arms of his partner.

The teakettle was rustling and grinding and about to climax.

The San Francisco public-relations man with a wedding band had pushed himself up out of the armchair: he was assembling his shirt around himself. It lacked buttons now. He rattled together its unjoinable halves. His penis, that badly aimed weapon of evolution, vestigial-looking on the human, was something whose weight and swing he was able to ignore, because of course he was used to it, men are used to it, or maybe like with breasts, you never get completely used to it.

He dipped down for the trousers on the floor, and he went into the kitchen. “Do you want me to talk to them?”

“No,” she replied.

“Do you take honey?”

She looked at him – his eyes were on her – and she turned back away.

She said, “Yes I take honey.”

The investigators’ roll of tape wasn’t tape. It was a roll of adhesive stickers. Her car’s doors, she could see, were being sealed shut with stickers. An announcement was repeated on them. No doubt it said something about how these premises were under investigation as a crime scene. Then, standing up tall in his spaceman jumpsuit, he shook the aerosol can – a marble rattled hard inside the aluminum cylinder, a percussion sound that pierced the whole cathedral forest (piercing like the midday clatter of the woodpecker in the eastern grove) – and he began spraying spots around the Volvo’s doorhandles – then set the can down. Magnesium Silicate, U.S.

Inside her was rising a hard lump, which was her ineffectual anger. For the rest of the day, these men would prod and prick and sponge at everything; and the can of aerosol powder would leave frosty breaths on everything, which she herself would have to go around cleaning up, after they’d gone – keeping the place nice for Bob when he came home again. White beans were soaking in water in a bowl on the counter.

Tink-tink: the spoon in a teacup. A picture of a kind of “Isobel” Sproehnle was easy to summon, a housewife and a more-or-less sufficient confection obedient and trivial, servant of her husband’s career in business, all too efficient in bed, but bright at the breakfast table. She would have to be blonde and play tennis and have one of those ponytails. Why should Sheila ever meet her? It was a troubling idea of his, that they might ever meet.

There was definitely something. Something complicated in that marriage. He’d said “marvelous.” Here he was, staying, sitting here, lingering, talking about how his wife was marvelous.

The man working on the Volvo was using squares of clear cellophane tape, to lift off Sheila’s own handprints, printed there in olive oil from her own dolmas, or from the McDonald’s fries she sneaked at a freeway exit, or engine grease from when she added motor oil in gas stations. That her father had committed federal crimes was something they would somehow together, over time, endure.

Then Virgil was at her side with a mug of tea. He was wearing pants. She hadn’t heard the kettle whistle. He placed the hot cylinder in her hands and then stayed there. He seemed to contemplate her profile at close range.

So she turned and looked straight at him. You can’t really read anything of the soul in the eye’s pupil. Just like her own. There’s only a camera aperture.

Then by a lift of his eyebrow, he silently echoed the words he’d used a minute ago, You’ll see. She broke off the gaze. He turned and carried his own teacup back to the wing chair.

It was a good thing he’d gotten dressed, because the man in charge, with the clipboard, was aiming for the open door. “Sheila Carmel?” he said, stopping some distance from the doorstep. She came forward into the light.

Latex gloves made it tricky for him to sort through the pages on his clipboard. Then he did succeed in separating a wallet from the heap, to flip it open and display a fat badge, embedded in laminated leather.

She didn’t answer. Or look at it. She just held her mug of tea.

First he needed to make sure she was “Sheila Carmel,” and that this was her home, and when he did get affirmatives, he started explaining. They would need to take control of the premises for an hour or two, they were here to do an evidence work-up, and they had some releases she would need to sign.

Virgil came to stand by her. By folding his arms, he was disguising the fact that there was no closure to his shirt. He was, all the more, a boyfriend-shaped object.

She said, “How long?”

Her throat speaking was a strange unfamiliar clarinet. What she needed was to go sit down. This was her home but now society had every right to invade. Because her stepfather Dr. Robert Newton had threatened public institutions and endangered lives and property. “Where am I supposed to go?” she said. The audible soreness made Virgil sway closer.

“This will take maybe two hours. I apologize for the inconvenience. Whose car is that?”

“That’s mine. My name is Virgil Sproehnle. I live in San Francisco.”

“If you have the keys, would you allow us to move it?” They seemed to have been told already, that he was here. Or in any case, didn’t care to know any more.

The bank, she realized, might put a ten-day hold on fund transfers. Mutual funds would have to be tapped. Further holds on that money. Virgil’s resources were probably small compared to hers, but it was a good sign that he made the offer. Bob, when she could talk to him, would have an idea about money. First the financial advisor, then the broker. Then the accountant. In the meantime, right now, she needed everyone to be gone. The metaphysical slime was going to escape from her prised center. The man in the white jumpsuit just stood in the door writing on his clipboard, taking forever, rubbing through pages. Those were the kind of latex gloves that did allow a certain amount of dexterity, as she knew because she used them.

He asked for the Volvo’s documents of registration.

At this, with a masculine presumption, Virgil’s body beside her seemed to expand, “She can’t put her hands on things like that now, of course. The registration is part of what-all you people have already taken away. Everything is sealed up in plastic.”

“Well, we have to impound the car.”

“So she has no means of getting around?”

“We need to take the whole car to San Francisco. Has to go on the truck.”

“What is she supposed to do for transportation? She has legal matters to tend to.”

“I’m sorry, sir. We need the car.”

Virgil turned to her, elevating her. “It would be my highest privilege – ” he had to stop because his voice was frayed, “ – if you would like a ride or anything? Anything at all.”



Unfortunately then, just at a point when he’d almost won back actual gallantry, just when he’d felt he was holding up a chalice to her, just then, he was nudged by the bladder, implacable bladder, he’d been trying to ignore it, but now he needed to tell both people, “Excuse me just a minute.”

He’d noticed the white lip of porcelain, oval in the dim doorway. When he got in there, with the awareness of their eyes on his back, he shut the door. And because the loud gush of the stream in the bowl would seem vaguely comical, he sat down womanwise to get to work draining the long morning’s storage of the many swallows of bottled water, in his car while he drove, as well as the coffee at home this morning. Where also, incredibly, there’d been a woman in a bathrobe. She was the one he’d betrayed; she was the one he loved. And the caffe mocha, in the towering paper cup from the freeway drive-thru.

He knew she could tell the police now if she wished. She could tell them what had happened. But she seemed to have decided to say nothing. That was a generosity he couldn’t, now, weigh. Maybe it just made practical sense, for her. He placed his stupid head in his hands, according to the grief of that common booth, and he began trying to think. About what his position was. If “thinking” were ever possible for man.

This today had happened without his slightest premeditation or foreknowledge: it wasn’t “like him,” but it had been him. His life, Isobel’s life, Sheila’s life: after this, all three of them, separately, would be like refugees, like explosion-survivors. Outcomes were impossible to predict. He himself was already going to be complete flat rubble – already he was without any rights, or any expectations. Such an attitude was an opening way of inviting all the rest of justice. The only path forward (if a path forward could be discovered) would become clear by consulting feelings of the heart, not rational plans of the mind – like after a concussion or blindness where all you have left is your sense of smell, or touch, to guide you.

In general, the principles of action lined up as follows, while his head was in his hands:

A) He would always be basically incapable of any secretiveness, or any form of “tact” or “discretion”; not with his wife, not with anybody; nor lying of any kind; therefore B) one way or another, Isobel would find out pretty much immediately; or as-good-as-immediately; or at least inevitably; so C) all the damage from this mess would best declare itself now, right away – rather than be latent or delayed. And then he knew, D), that this could be fashioned into a gift in the long run somehow.

He didn’t know exactly how, yet. It was a mystic presumption. Somehow an awful mistake of his own could be a gift, to Isobel, from himself. And not the ruinous end of everything. Rather, a new beginning. After an, of course, agonizing period of transition and learning and adjustment, this episode would liberate her in some way. Whatever such a gift might be, it would be painful. The only thing needed was honesty.

This wasn’t merely “the way forward,” it would be the truth, the saving truth: that this stupid mistake could be a kind of blessing, or lesson, if only he were true enough, and pure enough in intention. He must first confess everything to her without the slightest self-interest or cunning or any expectation, or indeed any hope. Having turned the truth over to her, he would then put himself under her power. That’s how he could picture it right now. And she, Isobel, his wife, she could use it. Use it however she wants. Somehow maybe this would be a kind of answer to her own restlessness. Somehow with goodwill – (this was all still a radiant sketch, a scene, on a far-off and well-lit stage, where bright effigies of himself and his wife gestured and moved) – with enough goodwill, this would be a kind of medicine, a scandal in the world for Isobel to use however she will.

Unwrapping – he and Isobel together – unwrapping this mysterious many-layered gift, exploring its accessories and its catches, would take some time, and some patience, and would cause pain, and it would require learning and changing. They would be different people when it was done. All three of them would. He actually (this was a strange fact) had no real worries about Sheila, Sheila had other things to think of, he was mostly worried about his wife. She, Isobel, was the vulnerable one, herself the true adulteress, she was fragile and could be hurt or cracked or broken. But there was such a thing as the lamp of truth, and he would hold it up before him. Tell her everything eventually. He would have to. Outside the bathroom door, there existed a very real world, in which to apply such a vague resolve. And since the bladder was again empty he stood up and cinched and girded. This was an unwarranted, completely unearthly idea he’d leaped to. It had no rational support. And he knew it would involve a long period of self-demolishing, total self-flattening, unaccustomed in one so high-self-esteem as himself.








BOOK TWO: The New Dispensation


There shall be no Law. For the Law was Death.

And thereinafter, the only law will be Love,

written in every heart.”









The San Francisco House




It’s another calm, sweet morning in Virgil Sproehnle’s vast bed in the northeast wing. The baby, lying between Isobel and Sheila, has been wide awake for some while singing to himself in a soft breath, wheee-yo wheee-yo wheee-yo, his favorite nonsense words lately. Virgil rises against the pillows to peer down among his women’s shoulders in the pre-dawn dark. The child seems to be inspecting his new fat forearm – dimpled at the elbow, dimpled at the wrist – holding it up and watching it.

The twilight in the room is still deep and Virgil tries putting his head down again among his sleeping people. Already the day’s newspapers are beside the bed. His breakfast will arrive on a tray soon. Soon will begin the fond day-long tumult, the baby’s babble and complaint, whir of appliances, the carpentry sounds from Bob’s workshop and NPR from Isobel’s studio, the sun making its voyage over San Francisco’s hilltop steering the shadows in their regular old sundial swing. He rises again from the pillow, and his hand supports his propped head. He won’t sleep. It feels good to be alert. The objects in the room in amber are pressing forth their bodies, the two far-apart vases on the mantelpiece, the brass andirons similarly female-shaped, the wing chair, the white pitcher. The front page of the Chronicle, on the floor beside the bed, displays a photo of a newborn panda cub. There’s a long-looking article about earthquake prevention. Something about the liquidation of the Vatican’s old assets. And something about paying reparations to descendants of slaves. The sidebar headline is Dow Keeps Soaring. The New York Times, too, has the story in the financial markets: Another Wall Street Milestone. And: “Visiting Hebrew-Philistine Chorale to Perform on Great Lawn.”

Outside the bedroom window, the San Francisco summer night has grown pale. It’s time to get up and change the boy’s diaper. Push the button to notify Guadalupe she can bring breakfast any time she likes. He isn’t doing anything particular, other than contemplating the baby, its little weight of dependence, so self-insistent, its body the mere sticky bud, still, of a human. It’s amazing how little humans arrive absolutely self-important, it’s even intimidating, the way they come with – despite their incompetence, despite weakness and smallness – the working assumption that their souls are equal to grown-ups’ souls, irrespective of body-weight ineqalities. And a few knowledge deficiencies. Like who Christopher Columbus was, and how to tell time, and being able to count dollars and cents – remembering sometimes to change the oil and check the tire pressure – what else is there? – tying your own shoes, stopping for “red” and going for “green,” knowing the difference between Republican and Democrat – none of which is true knowledge, not of anything deep, it’s just habit, it’s just habituation. Viewed in profile, the infant eyeball’s curvature gleams with a light of future suns Virgil will never live to see. That a father’s head has risen on one side isn’t something he seems to notice. He goes on whee-ohing to himself, slapping the blanket, watching his own forearm come floating up in his view, then again bringing it down on the blanket. A person has to get used to having a forearm. It’s an attached, operable limb. He’s going at it so hard now it’s about to wake the mother, or both mothers.

So Virgil – ultra-stealthily! – slides out from under the blanket. And in his extremely debonair new pajamas (gift of Isobel) he creeps around to the far edge of the bed. Without waking the women, he will lift Milton from entanglement and carry him to the nursery to change the disposable diaper, by now soaked hard-as-a-helmet with hot pee. In the meantime his own useless tendencies of thought will have been guided away from the bed and its luxuries. Lifting a babe out of bedsheets involves a kind of scooping, and a juggling. From the room of sleeping women, the pajamaed Virgil carries him like an armful of warm rolls.

All these quaint devotions in Earth won’t have gone unwatched or unredeemed. They will always have been observed. For the New Dispensation may have come, but Guardian Angels are not obsolete, and the precincts of Paradise have definitely not begun to flicker like a badly tuned TV channel. The Tutelary cloud persists – the entire airy domain persists – with or without an incumbent Author of all things. The same old Ordinary will have been at his post as usual, in his insomniac way. While his Cadets still sleep. A new pot of coffee is almost finished brewing.

Everything is easy now and nothing needs to be catalogued or shelved. Nothing will arrive in the dumbwaiter. Nothing to be petitioned. Meanwhile, the coffee maker has stopped gurgling and pumping. So it’s done.

The Angel Mischal lacks the initiative – to get himself off his elbows and cross the room. The whole world dully prickles in his peripheral vision. Below underfoot, through mist, San Francisco’s peninsular street-map will keep coming up clearer, its neighborhoods’ various plaids meeting at angles. Sunny weather is assured today, as every day.

The old Angel strikes a match in Heaven and lights the cigarette that’s been clinging to his lip. First of the day. To soothe the belly.

So – sending up, along with the fumes, his abject confusion, and also his old advertisement of humility – he moves to the dumbwaiter and crouches by the shaft. The empty chute’s downdraft is enough to pull the smoke. He persists in this sneakiness, though the truth is, not only will his stomach never settle, but furthermore the others in the office probably know, perfectly well, about these occasional little gulps of weakness, so why bother to disguise the smell? There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. One day very soon, the shadowless corridors of Paradise will be thronged by repentant souls from the depths, new-arrived on these shores, who will be hardly able to believe they spent so many thousands of years cringing, hiding from the light, hating the light. At the rims of Hell they are collecting, clamoring, on their blackened beaches massing for their migration soon, up to the purer skies and sweet breezes. Their watchfires are visible at night. The stench of them sometimes reaches this far. Soon their miseries will end. And only satisfaction ensue. Only healing ensue. No one will ever think anymore of the old divine corpse somewhere gorged-upon who still struggles toward a punishment complete, rather than piecemeal as a remnant.[25] Because, in Paradise, the coming illumination will be total. And in Earth below, goodwill compete with goodwill. And happiness be piled upon happiness. Throughout all Heaven, even the least creatures, like for example Boaz and Hokhma, will now be called Guaranteed Angels, and be vouchsafed a lyre and a place in the Nimbus Gloriae. From a perforated disk in every Lounge, faint, soothing, unobjectionable music flows, the same in every Lounge and Office, and in every Terrace and Mall and Colonnade, the same music.

However, for the dedicated Archangel, in these soft times, these gently apocalyptic times, there are cigarettes, and there’s vodka, too, because this is still Paradise. And there are many hours until the next visit to the bier with the sharp knife and the fork. He balances his cigarette on the sill of the dumbwaiter.

In the drawer, his hand goes deep, behind the Office letterhead, accurately for the vodka. Before dosing his coffee he gets one swallow pure from the bottleneck – of ether clear and tasteless, but effective, to heat up his old Archangelic Person in a world otherwise ideal. First swallow of the morning, it is the only thing that brings back the illusion of his powers. Lacking his former powers of motion[26], the Angel has become utterly localized, preferring never to leave even this cloud, this Office. It’s all he does, linger here, mostly standing, hating to sit. Because at least walking back and forth feels like something. And between visits to the bier, there’s nothing to do, recovering for the next trip, the next performance down there, kneeling and working, eventually finding in himself a kind of giddiness, if  broken-hearted, something beyond revenge necessary in enduring the cartilage crunch and pop, the salty mire, by hand to be swept together on the slab. Somehow in a kind of sad detachment, it becomes joyful vindication, revenge against the one wanting it, asking for it, admitting it, lying down for it, grinding for it, and a natural disgust for the victim’s wanting it. Inside the dumbwaiter chute, the basement-seeking draft draws Heavenly air from above, pulling the smoke. The butt, dwindling, comes again to the Angel’s lips. In his mouth another little smoke-monster is conceived. The whole place does look like a sickroom, the unwashed cups, the Popsicle sticks accumulating, the flatulence, the newspapers piling up. As for the cigarette butt, the Archangel stabs it dead on the dumbwaiter-shaft wall, in a place where the others don’t have to see where the little smudges accumulate. From where he crouches, he can just see over the cloud’s edge. Below on Earth, in morning dusk on a San Francisco hilltop, the mansion’s little golden window shines. It’s Virgil in there, bending over the baby at the diaper-changing table, contented man, crown of creation. In these mornings when he deserts the women’s bed, the sharp chill in all his rooms feels to Virgil like rejuvenation, the cold is like immortality itself, abstinence, freedom from bedwarmth, from pleasure, from the flesh.

Such morning-time serenity, in such chastity, is a dividend for Virgil of the misery that wracked him, night after night, when – not long ago! – he had betrayed his wife and, foolishly, was keeping what happened a secret. He’d lost courage. He actually hoped to get by without saying anything, not ever, thinking the stain on his character might possibly vanish by itself over time.

So during one week, while his Guardians watched, he lived in a condition of true despair in the little Marina apartment. The tumbledown cabin in the mountains, meanwhile, was all he thought of. The Cadets in their role might ordinarily have taken a mature satisfaction, seeing a mortal begin to touch down on his own helplessness. The worst for Virgil was that his wife hadn’t the slightest suspicion. In this, she was pure. That she was so unknowing shifted all evil to his side – but he found it impossible to understand, too, how had she, over the months and years, been able to practice daily lying so briskly?

But the Angels could see. Isobel’s dishonesties were easier for her because of his knowledge and collaboration in them. The collaboration was even mostly unconscious – they’d been two waders who never stumbled because each held an end of an underwater baton. Virgil had kept her balance, flowing with her every step. And he’d thought this was devotion.

During that week, the Cadets stayed up and watched over the screensaver-lit bedroom as it revolved all night through Mondrian’s reds and yellows and greens, hellishly. While he lay beside her, the guilt took on a shape inside Virgil’s body: guilt took the specific form of a piece of bent iron, rusty rebar, as from an old building foundation, it materialized inside his neck and extended into the chest area and on down toward his hip – physically an ache, so he was pinned. He couldn’t rise up off the mattress and stand up and get his sanity back.

Now look at him. Making gurgly noises at the baby under lamplight, amidst smells that have come around again in history, a constant fresh-laundry smell and talcum to dust the baby’s peachy crotch. Virgil’s very eyes, in their sockets, are open upon the shared trance that is flesh. A man’s eyes are glutted in it, when he stands in the light of flesh.

Meanwhile anyway the cigarette has been squashed. Now the entire morning lies ahead. With no special Tutelary duties.

In the vending machine, a flat little apricot Danish pastry waits. Another form of doom.

But here come the Cadets. Up the corridor.

He’d heard their voices – but now they go silent. They always pause outside the door because they need to gather up a cloud of enthusiasm to burst in with.

And yes, when they enter, Cadet Boaz fairly shouts, “You’re awake, Mischal! Excellent!”

Their custom nowadays is to raise their voices and yell merrily in his face. “We brought you something delicious!” As on other mornings, they’ve brought him a brioche and a cappuccino. They’ll probably also make him move and sit in the upholstered armchair they installed for him. Which is supposed to be throne-like and honorific.

It’s all thin theatre. Because, down deep, they’ll be confused. They surely sense the cigarette smoke, and they can see the visible malaise. Whatever is wrong with the Archangel, they truly don’t want to know, so a whole welter of jolly distractions has evolved.

Hokhma stoops. “How are you today, Mischal?” She sets the exotic special breakfast before him, then she backs away, so she can be standing next to Boaz. “Mischal, there’s something we’d like to discuss. It’s about Virgil’s lifespan. Boaz and I were talking, and we thought we’d bring this up. Now of course, Virgil can’t live forever, ha ha. Or rather, that’s just the question! Living forever! I know you’ve said death is not numbered among the Tribulations…”

Boaz says, “First tell him the good news.”

“Yes! Guess what. You’ll never guess.”

As for the pastry, it’s a worse risk to his digestion[27] than the old Danish would have been.

“Go ahead, Mischal. Try and guess. You’ll never guess.”

Mischal doesn’t want to guess.

“You’ll never guess in a million years,” Boaz agrees.

“Mischal! You’re not using your comfy chair!”

The recliner with a special cup holder – it supposedly better befits his exalted mythic stature; but it seems, also, to serve the accidental purpose of removing him from the center.

Hokhma takes his elbow.

But he can stand up perfectly well under his own power, and while traveling over to the comfy chair, he snarls, “Well, this certainly is a wonderful-looking brioche you’ve brought.” It’s contagious, their style of speaking during these strange days and weeks, as if, in eternity, they are all spread painfully out against a flat background, bellowing straight outward.

“There you are. Now you’re snug,” she tells him while she pushes him down against the cushions.

“And!” she sings out, turning away, “We’ll get the champagne and we’ll make you your great big champagne mimosa.”

A bottle is on the fridge door, and she’s very adept at picking at its foil, untwisting its wire basket.

“—Because why not? Every morning is a cause for celebration!”

“Anyway, just guess,” Boaz commands again. “What our good news is. Just guess.”

They can see he’s not going to guess. So Boaz goes into it, “We’ve been petitioning, and…” – glancing to Hokhma, he puts a teasing look in his eye, “We received word from Isobel’s Angels…”

“She’s going to ovulate!” Hokhma finishes.

“Hopefully! Cross-your-fingers!”

“Another baby for Virgil! Great for Virgil, no?”

“And great for Isobel, too! Especially!”

“Seriously, though, Mischal.” Hokhma frowns. “Seriously, you’re the Office Ordinary. Do you think this could be excessive good fortune for that little family?” She pulls open the refrigerator door.

“That’s right, Mischal. What do you think?”

They need to go on pretending to respect his authority. The truth is, Mischal can see, they don’t really want to know anything. They have only a dim assumption, that whatever is wrong with him, he’s doing it so they don’t have to. So nobody else anywhere has to, ever. Their aim is to stay innocent of everything. They’re just being good. Being good is what got them this far.

Their particular little questions, though, the Angel Ordinary isn’t going to answer. He’s chewing. He’s having trouble summoning saliva. These brioches are awful. Sometimes digestion is like some kind of impossible pregnancy.

“Hallelujah! Ha ha!” yells Hokhma aiming the champagne bottle, and the cork pops, its trajectory carrying it out in the direction of the Pleiades, where it will keep on going straight out forever and ever. “A little bit in your orange juice can’t hurt anybody!” she tells him as she swings on him with the smoking bottle.

He just wishes there were an eventful Weather Page. More specifically he really wants to get to the vodka. And he wishes his staff would get out. So he could light up another.

The worst thing is the publicity of his killing time in the open. He dreads his solitude, but then, when anybody does come around, right away he wants them gone.

While the column of champagne in the glass climbs and fizzes and subsides, a discreet, level glance passes between the two Cadets. It’s a confirmation. They can both smell the cigarette.

Hokhma begins again, “Anyway, Mischal. About Virgil. We have a question. I know you’ve said death is not officially a Tribulation—”

He cuts her off, “You want to make Virgil immortal in Earth. Fine. Immortaility. Yes. This Office may ask for a Realtor[28] to be an executor in Earth. Let Virgil never die.”

The Cadets hadn’t meant to get so far so fast. Now they’re looking perplexed. All he wants is for them to get out, so he can get back in the vodka drawer.

“Well,” Hokhma hastens to get in a few arguments, “according to Theologians—”

“I’ll do it,” he interrupts. “I’m going to be in the darkroom. I’m doing Virgil. I’ll assign a Realtor.” He starts struggling up out the comfy chair. In the darkroom there’s another bottle, and he can smoke.

Cadet Boaz tries to add to Hokhma’s point, “You see, Mischal, we don’t yet know howhow Paradise and Earth will come together…”

“Let it be done. Let Virgil be immortal in Earth.”

So decrees the Archangel emeritus, on his way to the door. They almost don’t know whether to trust this. While he’s easing his sore bulk past, he catches them exchanging their dire eye-contact again.

He just wants to get to the darkroom and close the door. The pain is shifting dangerously. Like a pregnancy but it’s not something trying to be born, it’s something trying to die in there, and the two mortal Cadets in the Office, they don’t want to know. Who would? The darkroom door has a secure lock and it will be safe like a blind. It’s long past time, too – time for him to turn to his work, his old work here as a Guardian, and not just for the vodka alone. It’s the same old editing chair, the same one as in all eternity.

In any turbulence of an apocalypse to come, the thing that will actually save a Heavenly Angel will be his love for one mortal man. What was a Heavenly Angel, ever, really? Only an effigy in plaster; or carven wood, or the old heavy copper-and-tin mix; or in fresco, pilloried in a halo’s cranial brace. An Angel will never be free of this Comedy. Never be free of Comedy’s anguish, and its artifice, Comedy’s misery, a player in a cosmic farce, in a ruff, in motley, disgusted by his own greasepaint, his gestures, his rags, an image cemented in plaster as it once dried. Soon to be over.

Now let an end begin. As the Office’s Cadets did wish. Let a mortal man now live without Tribulation and go on forever and never die. The whole Earth, soon, without Tribulation. Let a Realtor be assigned as an Angel in Earth, who will fly forward and backward in History, to accomplish errands in the future and the past, to weave Virgil’s next few moments on Earth into a firm pouch launching a new immortality.









The Next Few Moments



So when Sheila Carmel awoke that morning, alone in the big bed, one new thing was strange. The phone’s red light was pulsing. A message was waiting. Or rather two messages. The button flashed with a twinned pulse.

She would never get used to this big house, like a hotel. Among heaped pillows she rolled to see another San Francisco day. Already the color blue rang clear in the sky. Virgil and Isobel and the baby had all, in some order, slipped out without waking her. Guadalupe had been through: there was a breakfast tray and the papers. Today was already going to be a very good day in particular, because today she would make progress on the barn in the country where Isobel’s big paintings on Masonite would be stored, whether Isobel liked it or not. A salesman had agreed to come – during the late morning when Isobel would be deep in her studio and wouldn’t have to be aware of it – so they could talk about equipping the barn with the right temperature and humidity controls. The paintings would be protected permanently – archivally was the word – and Isobel wouldn’t be able to object as long as she could pretend to know nothing about it. Yesterday she seemed to make a point of lingering in her studio, extra long, while Sheila was on the phone ordering flat-file cabinets, six of them, their many drawers shallow as cookie-sheets, wide as tables. Each heavy drawer, when pulled, would disclose, on its bearings’ smooth glide, an Isobel Harkness drawing.

Dow Keeps Soaring,” remarked the Chronicle.

The New York Times announced: “HEBREW-PHILISTINE CHORALE TO PERFORM ON GREAT LAWN: Famed Glee Club in Central Park, on World Tour to Celebrate Incipiat Pax.”

What else? – The Bay Bridge’s upper deck would be reassigned to bicycle commuters only. – The federal government had appointed an independent auditor to calculate remunerations to descendants of slaves. – A rare Panda cub had been born at the zoo, and there was a photo: While its mother recuperated, the cub was being nursed along by two older and more experienced mothers, a rhinoceros and a lion that happened to be in the same enclosure, all together among the reeboks, the butterflies and chipmunks, the angora rabbits and Canadian wolves.

She rolled off her pillows and she lay listening to the whole house. A voice could be heard in the sunroom. Isobel was out there with the baby. She was reading French to him, the French version of Babar. It would be nice to go back to sleep right now. In the main hall downstairs, the electronic bong sounded. Somebody was at the front gate. Guadalupe – the lightness of her step – was going out to answer it. It would probably be the bank courier. They had phoned yesterday. Sheila, lying at the heart of the house, was so sensitive she was all-knowing, ear to the mattress hearing everything through the taut mattress’s oceanic clang – the babble of French in the sunroom, the chirps and coos of Milton as he patted the pages, the sound of Isobel’s teacup on the glass tabletop out there, Guadalupe’s delight in having an errand. Poor Virgil, he would be doing his yoga. Also, there came an occasional knock of wood on wood, which would be her stepfather Bob in his workshop.

Then she must have dozed. Because Isobel was entering the room, bursting in carrying Milton on one hip, a cardboard envelope in her hand. It was the bank notification, on schedule, the money had been transferred. “Wake up. We’ll have champagne. The miracle has happened again.”

Blandly Milton rode her hip, spoiled prince on his pachyderm, but when he saw Sheila – the mother he’d forgotten for an hour – he struggled and swam. Isobel landed on the bed and set him free to clamber. “Eight million dollars,” she marveled, while sorting inside the envelope, pulling out a letter.

All Isobel’s erotic powers, this morning, seemed to be retracted. Dead air around her. It was a relief, actually, for Sheila, as she found herself these days spending much of her time in a pricked wariness like prey. All she wanted was to be patient and staunch in Isobel’s life right now. Isobel, in fact, today seemed to be doing well. Certain mornings there was a ragged electricity – some days worse than others – a shoulder would look pained, and her scissoring little artistic hands would fly, her hair-ends would churn, her eyes always seeking the ground – and on such mornings she would soon insulate herself deep in her studio, behind her big gessoed squares of Masonite where the pigments could be laid on thick.

“…I guess this will pay to develop in Artemisia County.” She was looking over the letter. “I was truly expecting the mirage to dry up.”

The far-off casino was, yes, a mirage. One doesn’t – as if it might insult the magic – want to inquire too closely into the source of the seven-digit and six-digit and five-digit figures that had become the usual thing in some places. None of them had ever gone out to lay eyes on the gambling house being constructed somewhere to float on the Mississippi. Nor ever would. For all they cared, a casino could be an offstage fiction, anchoring the web of hallucinations that is life.

“It’s a check?” she asked, while she humped to prop herself up, even while Milton dug for her breast with his amazing feral accuracy. She loved – she was a total victim of – the baby’s peculiar mix of helplessness and command.

“No no. They transfer it electronically, bank-to-bank.” Isobel poked inside the cardboard envelope, finding nothing more. “You don’t grasp high finance, dear.”

A flicker of wit: today was a good day.

She considered whether she might use her far-distant toe to tap at Isobel’s hip. But didn’t. It would have seemed like wanton teasing.

“I’m the designated daughter here. I don’t have to grasp high finance.”

Milton had hit his mark and attached his vacuum pump. Isobel flipped among the pages. Now, possibly, would be a moment to mention the barn in Artemisia County, the installation of an atmosphere-control system there. Sooner or later it would have to be spoken of aloud. This afternoon again, as usual, Isobel with her pretty arms would be dragging another 4-by-8 Masonite painting out – out to the garage, where mildew would eventually get it, or the Masonite itself would rip, from being wrongly stacked. Because she always bought too-thin sheets.

“The daughter, mm-hm,” the older woman said while she scanned the pages. “Pregnant waif.”

Milton’s tender mouth pumped so selfishly you had to respect him. Before he was born, she’d been worried about the maternal love aspect, the responsibility aspect, knowing how selfish she herself was, but then on that morning in the maternal bed, she weirdly respected him, right away, and so embarked freely on the road of loving him, the long road. She could see a lot already. He was, already then, a patient person, independent-minded, a withholder of judgment, and, moreover, a careful person – and he would be a hard worker, a bit of a loner, an ethical person. “Where’s Virgil?” she asked, though she had a general idea.

The idle question, unanswered, seemed to chime outward in circles, declaring a serenity, an expanding serenity, throughout the big house and the neighborhood and through the weeks and months to come. The years to come. Breastfeeding always robbed her of energy.

Isobel flipped a page. “It looks like I have to sign this… and get it notarized…”

Sheila sighed, watching Milton. It was all so strange and hotel-like because of all the pretending in the house: herself pretending Bob would recover, though he never would, not ever; Isobel pretending that she was just fine and that Virgil was the the one with a problem. And Virgil, of course: Virgil assuming he was the whole problem, meanwhile pretending to see nothing, notice nothing. Nobody mentioned the sounds of love in the night. It had happened now more than once, undeniably. It was possible that Virgil might have no awareness of it. Or else he was very good at covering it up completely. The most life-changing events can be, always, the ones most muffled.

Shuff, shuff, shuff from the workshop, the noise of an alder-wood blade being honed with a block of sandstone. It was another rice-harvest staff. Rice-harvest staffs were Robert Newton’s main manufacture in his captivity in these sunny days. He used to be such an effective man. Now he had a new kind of glance, sharpened, but sharpened to exclude the world. And it was made worse by the new haircut. The encounter with the law had aged him. After his release on bail, he refused to go back to the North Liberty labs, he just moved into the carriage house here and started writing essays. On economics. Which his publisher wouldn’t consider. Because their author was under indictment now, because he’d sabotaged a dam, an actual dam, operating all by himself in his loneliness. Now every night, click click click the keyboard. Sheila’s own constant, ever-present anxiety was something her flesh knitted around but couldn’t dissolve.

“I suppose those are harvest staffs I hear.”

Isobel put down the fine-print pages and looked at her. “He’ll be acquitted. He’ll come out fine.” Having settled that, she lifted the pages and started reading again, with her barbed eye, the businesswoman, the infertile one, preserved at the same level of sharp intelligence she must have had as a college student. That witty eye of hers, it never slept. Not even at the extreme of passion’s greatest choppy waves, when anyone, man or woman, should let vision be swallowed, Isobel’s shining eye never sacrificed its topmost seat but went on riding. A slightly unnerving trait. She read now with a close interest in the legal fine print, while Sheila watched, from within the vampire-swoon of being fed on by Milton.

She flipped another page, “Virgil? Is with Guadalupe. Planning his starvation diet for the week.”

Virgil’s diet – his solitariness in it, and his superiority in it – was almost harder on them. “The thing I hate is at dinner, when he switches to water. Right when I’m getting myself a second glass of wine, he pulls over his big plastic cylinder of water like it’s a meal.”

“He watches,” said Isobel, looking up from her letter, a little gloating in her eye. “He watches when I sip and I kind of linger and make him suffer.”

Immediately, somehow, this topic circled near their touching in the night. It was never spoken of, not even by them, but the topic, therefore, was everywhere. Absolutely everything alluded to it, it was smeared all over, all through the house. Or, it was like a web of invisible filaments that appeared as rewoven each morning across hallways and rooms and doorways, breaking across her own face, and Isobel’s too, Isobel’s sad sneezy face obviously so sensitive, blotchy these days. The not ever mentioning it was what made it most real, and most dangerous. There was nothing “bad” about it, or wrong about it, in the night it was merely a kind of unavoidable nice sinkhole that appeared on their side of the mattress only, and only during a time of twilight unconsciousness. Then, in a whole new arch in her body, the strange torsion could be applied, and tightened impossibly, and then released, all as if without waking up. And drain. And sleep come again. But then, who knows? Now, because of it, other things could get complicated. Could get distorted. Repeated unintentional events in the night might start sprinkling out a new shape on the ground for the foundations of things, in the real world that exists outside dreamworld. The daytime world is logical, rectilinear, societal, bright. There could be consequences.

“He grips his thousand-millilitre cylinder,” Isobel purred and her hand closed around a pole of nothingness before her, “and he watches me when I’m swishing around a breadcrust in gravy. And I bring it to my mouth. Then he looks deep into my eyes. And bwoop, he pops another edamame bean.”

The word alone, edamame, was intrinsically funny. “Yeah, one of the thirty-seven allowable edamame beans.” Edda and mommie together sounded funny. Sheila was a “mommie.” Of edamame beans, the dietician had decreed a fixed, exact allotment.

Isobel added, “Then he makes his flirty eyebrow thing: like, Mmm, thirty-six more to go. I’m serious, if anybody around here seduced him – ?”

“You won’t be laughing so hard when the diet works and he outlives everyone.”

“If anybody ever seduced him,” she brought her attention back the the letter, lifting it from her knee, “he’d give up edamame beans in a minute. And his longevity.”

This was Isobel’s recurrent insistence. A not-completely-facetious insistence. Her idea was that Virgil’s self-punishing diet wasn’t about longevity, it was about guilt, like everything else – because he thought he’d shown himself to be a rapist on that one day in North Liberty on the cabin doorsill. But she was just wrong about this. – It was more than wrong, it was a strangely unfair misconstruction of her own husband. It was true Virgil hadn’t, ever since, attempted any kind of embrace, of either woman; he kept briskly to himself all day, and at bedtime, too, just as brisk in sleep, staying far away on his own side of the bed. Isobel claimed he was doing penance. But he had no cause to feel guilty, and didn’t feel truly guilty either. This was something Sheila knew. Because she was the one: There at the scene in the cabin dooryard, she knew exactly what happened. And maybe she was no authority on sexual ethics, having been, herself, in her youth, sometimes really unprincipled – but as far as she was concerned, a rash act at the cabin had simply melted over time into one more pulse in the general flow.

No, Virgil’s “celibacy,” over the months, wasn’t guilt. He was kept away just by a string of circumstances. At first, yes, definitely, he did feel guilty, but not in any lasting sense, blessed as he is with an average male forgetfulness – but then, almost right away it turned out she was pregnant, and by the time they moved in together, a holy dread of the fetus inside kept him away. During that confusing period, also, he probably didn’t know if one caresses only one woman and not the other. These are strange days. Then after the labor and delivery, he was only being careful of her recovery. None of this was “penance.” He wasn’t guilty of much in particular. As she well knew. Also, Isobel never did seem to understand that her husband was, basically, not so sexual a creature. Virgil was a person who could probably go for hours, maybe even days, without noticing the possibility of sex. Whereas Isobel: she was one who couldn’t stop thinking of it.

The truth was, Isobel liked making a story of Virgil’s shame. Because it hid her own. It distracted from her own. It was Isobel who felt herself to be the one much more deep-stained; because after her husband’s big spasm of confession and contrition, there flooded in a new kind of moral daylight. And Isobel shrank from it, now each morning disappearing behind her heavy studio door. She’d told Sheila about the men, the men over the years, but to Virgil, she could never say anything. Her multiple unfaithfulnesses had been the secret story all along.

It was why, now, she hid with her paintings. And sold the gallery and didn’t answer calls. And stayed mostly inside the front gate. The word recluse might apply. Lately she literally walked favoring one leg slightly, from wretchedness. Her wretchedness was one reason for the younger woman to be open-minded about these episodes in the night that seemed to rush up from a well of loneliness primeval as an oracle. She had to respect that. She had to serve that.

In fact, until this minute, she hadn’t thought of it: Virgil was keeping his distance because he knew – he did know – he’d heard, in the night – of course he must have heard. He knew about the other side of the mattress, the muffled meetings, even the little rhythms, and he was keeping a distance. It was foolish to assume he hadn’t heard. He must have heard.

“He’ll go downtown,” said Isobel. “Right now he’s with Lupe doing menus. Then he’ll go downtown and do something with the money.” She took hold of Sheila’s big toe, “Hey. Why don’t you go with him and find the best music store there is, and buy yourself the greatest banjo in the world.”

Last night they’d had dinner with some neighbors she’d met in the vegetable market, the Metzgers. The Metzgers had musical evenings – stringed instruments hung all over the place – and she’d discovered an unlikely genius for the banjo.

Watching the top of Milton’s head, she said, “Maybe I’d have to get Earl Metzger to come with. To tell me what to buy. I always hated banjo!”

“Virgil would like banjo-hunting if he went along. You’d be doing him a favor. He’s pretending to be very grouchy about money management. He’s pretending he has plenty of other important things he should be doing. Like ‘Aardent.’”

The baby made suck-sounds. With his little starfish hands he steered Sheila’s bosom straight at himself. Isobel was right about that particular pretence of Virgil’s: the pretense that he still had a job. Or that Aardent mattered anymore. Aardent kept him complaining, but in a strictly ostentatious way.

The funny slurp sound at her nipple made the older woman, sitting at the far edge, put down the pages to watch the two flesh globes – baby-cheek and bosom, in whose tangency a chapped rosiness dwelt. “Lemme try again, why not,” she said, her eyes candied. She was already unzipping her fleece robe to bring her small, wide-planted breasts into the morning light, and that forlorn spot where her distinctive breastbone showed hard. “Doctor Bosch did say.”

Milton would probably protest.

But this was another sign, among several excellent signs, that Isobel was feeling fine today. And Sheila went ahead and unstuck him, inserting one finger in the vacuum-seal, and she swung him around and settled the baby on the other mom: they’d done it before: it had been recommended by the doctor: go ahead and suckle the babe, it’s been known to actually trigger some ovarian follicles. Also, as Isobel pointed out, it felt pretty nice. The boy at the barren little breast recognized a nipple and attached himself without an interval of whimpering, not even opening his eyes much. “He’s going to cry,” she said.

But he didn’t. He just wriggled higher and dug in harder.

“I’m so expert ’cause I used to practice with my G.I. Joe dolls,” she told Sheila. It was the same joke she’d made the last time. Flippancy: it was Isobel’s main tactic, healing herself over the months, medicating herself by small doses, the old caustic wit, from her tiny inner sac of concentrated tincture. Her husband’s one-and-only, publicized unfaithfulness wasn’t the only thing to face; nor her own mistakes the only thing: she also had to face having another woman in the house who was younger and a novelty in Virgil’s eyes.

So it must be a kind of adaptiveness of hers, the new risk she was taking in the dark of night, upon the mattress laying out a new strategy all around, wherein Sheila found herself unwillingly enchanted, a chess-piece brought under threat. Then, by day, as if nothing had happened in the night, she went on every morning disappearing behind the door of her studio, to paint big secret rectangles. Stowing them in the garage face-to-the-wall. How people survive: it’s admirable: it’s a long process of sending down pale roots in darkness. Just now, when Isobel came breezing into the room Sheila herself had felt the plunging surging, just laying eyes on Isobel, perhaps the surge of trust, even the surge of willingness. She hadn’t freely ventured such a feeling since – oh, those years – since she was a girl in New York and she was invulnerable and immortal. And unwise. The reprise of that surge brought, also, a new sense of steadiness in herself. It was the steadiness of taking responsibility. Isobel was definitely a responsibility.

In truth, it was all a little confusing. She pushed herself back up against the headboard. She pressed the phone’s flashing red button. She flapped the panels of her pajamas to bring in dry air.

Hello,” said a voice on the phone tape. “My name is Immer Genug. I’m a Realtor, at Immer Genug & Yissurim.”

Realtors. They were everywhere. The man left a telephone number using careful enunciation. An odd, alien body was behind the voice, the body of a very small man whose chest resounds with a reediness huskier and squirrelier than bigger people’s. “…I would like Mr. Sproehnle to call me, because in my research I have become aware of his residential development in Artemisia County. Methods are available by which the development can be refinanced more effectively. It’s an instrument called a Trust, which my office specializes in, and I would like to discuss it with Mr. Sproehnle. I thank you. Again, my name is Genug. Immer Genug and Yissurim is with Providence. My office is at Masonic and Geary in the Western Pacific Building. I will be here all day. Please feel free to see me at any time in my office, where I am during normal business hours. Thank you.”

The older woman was watching the top of the baby’s head at her breast.

“Virgil will like handling that,” she observed, drily.

“It’s something to keep him away from ‘Aardent’ for a day,” Sheila said, also drily.

Milton wasn’t yet actively trying to nurse anymore, he was just bumping his forehead, little sleepy clown.

Hello, I’m calling for Mr. Virgil Sproehnle.”

The second message was a woman identifying herself as Gloria. She was at the Cielo County Recorder’s Office in North Liberty.

North Liberty! To be reminded of the old county-government buildings at home was a surprise and a comfort – the little herd of pre-fab double-wides on a slope in the pines outside town. One day (she liked to think) they would all live in North Liberty. All of them. All together. They’d never planned this togetherness, or this big house. The original basis of their agreement, to live temporarily as a threesome only until Milton came, had long ago firmed up into another of the pretenses. Really, they always did know this love would go on. What a pleasure, their not mentioning it! They just left it lying around.

The woman in Cielo County was giving her phone number and her office extension, then she began lamenting, “We need to remind Mr. Sproehnle that the birth certificate for ‘Baby Boy Sproehnle’ is still incomplete. The grace period will expire on Wednesday of next week. After that time, it will be necessary to specially re-apply through the Social Security Administration. We want to remind you that, until the birth certificate is completed, the child will have no legal identity.”

“Our baby!” said Sheila. “Li’l guy! Has no legal identity!”

Isobel was rolling Milton’s head against her chest, trying to remind him what he was supposed to be doing though her breast was so scant – crowned by a pink Good-&-Plenty peculiarly lengthy in its distension, an oddity of her anatomy. She said, “Didn’t the midwife do a birth certificate?”

“Remember? He didn’t know where his own father was born?” she lowered her voice. “Virgil couldn’t fill in the box for his own father’s place of birth.”

“I slightly remember,” the older woman admitted. – In the labor-and-delivery scene she’d served as disk jockey, mostly, at the kitchen stereo choosing tunes while Sheila lay on the rubber sheet in the parlor bracing herself under the midwife’s shepherdess hand. “I suppose I was out of the room for that. All whatever aftermath.”

“Can you imagine?” said Sheila. “Not knowing where your own father was born?”

It was all part of a pattern, actually. In the work of erasing his own personal history, Virgil was always quietly persevering. About Terra Linda, he never spoke.

Milton, in his futility, had stopped trying, and the two mothers in love, by fate landed here together, watched the officially unnamed boy sleepily scrub his face back and forth. Isobel Harkness could manage to seem derisive and even callous. And in truth, inwardly, yes, there were a few permanently hard places inside. Definitely she treated herself as shallow and cynical, and censored a certain tenderness. But that very censorship put creative pressure inside her. She was funny, skeptical, imaginative – her mind went to the oddest, freshest places. It was exciting being around an artist – a lot like Sheila’s own mother, unapologetic, brilliant. Her mother, when she was alive, always wished Sheila were not such a scientific, rational-minded girl. Well, now at least she had this woman Isobel on her hands.

“Wasn’t his father from Maine?” Isobel asked. “Virgil’s father was from Maine.”

“He doesn’t know which town. I find that bizarre.”

“Oh, Virgil’s father was an easy person not to know anything about. He was really a zero. He was always hanging about, busy-busy-busy. With all these interminable… project-thingies.” Whenever Isobel launched into her historical sketches, Sheila listened well. Because of course admittedly, she herself was building bridges, bridges into Virgil’s past, bridges into the marriage. “The first time I met the old guy, when Virgil and I were first together, his father struck me as a ‘nice’ man but he was one of those people so nice you could, like, put your hand through him. He wasn’t entirely all-there.”

On the message machine, Sheila pressed SAVE.

Isobel tucked her chin down hard, and directed some advice to Milton, forming her mouth to make the advice baby-shaped, “It’s impawtant to have a boof certificate,” patting his back. She really wasn’t very tender, in the role of mother.

“Poor little ‘Baby Boy Sproehnle,’” said the genuine mother. And they both watched the helpless one in the world. The forehead had been wrinking for some while. Because he was starting to see there was no milk.

“There he goes.”

He distanced his mouth from the nipple. He was about to lift his funny siren, and getting redder.

Which would only get worse, fast. So as mother, Sheila reached to gather him back in, in the old reach of mercy and justice – as well as delight, because he really was funny, the little old man, the way he arched his back and looked up to see the face of the impostor. And then dropped his head against his betrayer’s rib and wept.



But where is the man? The protagonist? The lone central actor in Creation’s 13-billion-year movie? The sound of that infant’s cry penetrates to an inner bathroom, through two solid oak doors, where it reaches the ear of Virgil himself, unclothed, the proprietor, in all midlife’s glory, naked and barefoot on cold marble, leaning on the sink, cross-eyed from suspense as his fingernail pries in his buttocks’ furrow to uproot a day’s well woven lint, sweat-glued down in sparse hair. Mortal man, crown of creation, under the sight of all the Angels in Heaven, the interrogating fingernail scratches up fuzz that must be day-old, knotted in his own planted fibers, while his higher mental faculties explore a state of loftiest contemplation.

For naturally, a clump of friendly old lint puts a philosophical man in mind of the great ecosystem of dust. That is, of fuzz. Fuzz as a principle in nature – in general, fuzziness. Not only a little gluteal lint, or the sock-fibers discoverable between the toes. Nor only the navel’s gray comma to be plucked. But everywhere, the housedust that rolls under beds, the colorless velvet that increases on the topmost shelves, in unvisited attics’ sunbeams the lost hyphens in mid-air looking for a connection while careening slowly with the momentum of planets and galaxies. Even the beard around the dryer’s vent, even fresh tennis balls’ fuzzy corona – (which, since the balls themselves end up bald and tough, must go somewhere!) – it’s a secret economy, visible only to the philosopher, who has the leisure and the perspective to contemplate it. In order that his fingernail may have mystic vision in his body’s dark hemisphere, his eyes have swum forward into blindness.

Life is beautiful, and after his shower, he’ll have tea. And then, with teacup, he will sally forth to visit his bonsais in the conservatory. Then Guadalupe will have her piano lesson. During which hour, maybe he’ll make brunch for her and for everybody. An allotment of edamame beans for himself. And steamed broccoli and half an orange. Let the new money sit for a day, and kind of “settle” for a day, before overriding the bank hold and wiring it. Afterward then (instead of thinking about food) he can drive downtown and visit the clever accountant Nancy. Talk about the money. Drop by at Aardent and check for messages.

Purest will be viewing the bonsais. And taking his first sips of sour tea barefoot on the morning coolness of the slate tiles. In such a day, the only deficiency is that it doesn’t reverberate – it doesn’t go on infinitely – this day will happen in only one time, and only one place, to one forgetful little person, and then it’s gone. Which seems a waste, because, like everybody, he’s a sieve for experience. It goes right through. It plunges swirling right through.

But yet there is one who sees and remembers. There is an Angel on a cloud who never ceases to care, and to know. The Angel closes his old eyes to sever his gaze upon Virgil’s happiness, then he turns, on the axis of his own unique ache.

To turn to his work. Heaven’s darkrooms will always be a comfort. He always did love the projector’s whir-and-clatter; the beams that shoot out from the lens and the blaze on the screen; the lone watcher’s comfortable cleft of invisibility.

And it’s time now. It’s time. In these days when flights of Angels are out improving earthly weather everywhere and all the ballparks are offering free beer, in these days when the Dow and the NASDAQ have no limits – and when, soon, his own terrible solitary work will be over, namely the reduction ad pulverem of the One who once was never nameable, to be accomplished before all History and even Time Itself is mysteriously rolled up like a carpet – it’s time to go back to work on the man Virgil Sproehnle. The man’s past. With all the devotion that is a Guardian Angel’s.

The man is forty now, and ordinarily at a human span’s midway sigh – at an outermost point of a lifetime’s cosmic expansion, where all of “Virgil Sproehnle” hovers rarefied as galactic dust – it would be time to begin drawing his Universe back in, back toward its original impulse, dimming far stars, awakening memory, discovering again a central gravity, to pull Virgil back down in, to the important things, back to the smell of his mother’s cold cream at bedtime, back to the glimmering dew on the lawns in Terra Linda, summer mornings of waiting for the garbage truck, the glamorous odorous loud garbage truck, and back to the sound (it was a crinkle-crackle) of the Motorola TV-screen after it had been turned off, the bleb of grape jelly on the kitchen drawer-pull, the wonderful trough of dust under the swing set. Everything in the Universe which had once seemed to loom large and important will keep expanding, toward dissolving and vanishing. The things that had seemed most immaterial will condense again and glisten.

Now Virgil is not to die, ever. In the New Dispensation, a mortal will go into eternity without passing through death. Yet, as long as there is life, the past alone will have reality. Always the past alone will be the substance. So, as long as there is life, a Guardian will have the work of narration and redemption.

The reels are right there on the workbench. He can begin anywhere. The left-hand spindle locks down a reel with the old pop-up button of dull chrome. And when the filmstrip is threaded over the guides and sprockets, Mischal in his squeaky editorial chair sits forward upon the fulcrum of his personal ulcer, the fulcrum of responsibility, and he watches the action as it begins to flicker.

There is the boy Virgil Sproehnle at the age of ten, in the kitchen in Terra Linda. It’s summer and all the doors stand open. From far down the block comes the sound of Mr. Mulvoy’s lawn mower, because these were the years before his heart attack. The Gutstorb girl next door is practicing with her majorette’s baton. Sometimes that silver stick, with white rubber bulbs at either end, goes cartwheeling into the azure above the board fence. It’s a Saturday morning in Terra Linda. The kitchen walls’ yellow Formica panels are being hit by direct sunshine.

Little Virgil is standing at the counter. He’s in the act of lifting a glass of Kool-Aid, which is cellophane-blue.

The film comes to a halt on a frame. The Angel’s hand has closed on the rim of the turning reel. The boy’s form is frozen, still as a decal against the kitchen background, but making a quantum sizzle back-and-forth between checked time-frames.

Then Mischal reverses the flow of the reels. Time will run backwards, for by a Heavenly crank-motion he can churn the entire Universe counterclockwise.

The boy picks up the Tupperware pitcher, to tilt it above the full glass. The pitcher sucks a ribbon of Kool-Aid out of the glass. Defying gravity, the tongue of blue water rises up and inserts itself into the pitcher. Then the glass is empty, so he rights the heavy pitcher. He puts the glass, sparkling-dry, on the shelf and he walks – walks backwards – to the icebox, where he puts the full pitcher away. Mischal stops the counterclockwise motion there. The boy is arrested before the open icebox in his mother’s kitchen in 1976, the impressionable child already bearing the weight of the world, as children do, the whole world’s tremendous pressure communicated to this very kitchen, from far-off historical wars of territorial expansion, the bulk of newspaper headlines in all their incomprehensibility, the pressure from distant stars being born and making room for themselves. With that ripeness, the boy’s cheek shines. This kitchen is sunk at the floor of an atmosphere where he wades within fantastic explosions already. A child in his innocence is responsible already, omniscient already. The jar of One-A-Day vitamins. A doctor’s bill in the junk drawer. A Newsweek cover-story about another round of inflation. The fridge, the phone, the checkbook. It’s all there. Everything is in that one kitchen.

Then his father is in the kitchen, too, in his janitorial duds leaning on the stove, gripping his one hand in the other. Virgil is proud of his dad, his dad is a genuine hero, he’s got a Purple Heart – though the Purple Heart might be mocked, by some, as the badge of mere stupid bad luck, the badge of “wrong-place-wrong-time” – his dad is a hero anyway, if only because he works in the backyard garden and comes in the house dirty and happy. He’s a hero because he arrives home with a bag of potato chips that have a new kind of ripply corrugations, so they’re much crunchier than ordinary people’s potato chips, and he’s such a happy man it almost seems to make his mother mad sometimes. Virgil is a boy whose mother and father, like all mothers and fathers, have no interesting lives of their own, and he can get away with pretty much anything; he’s got a rock collection with semi-precious minerals glued down inside separate cardboard pigeonholes, and the promise of a Schwinn bike, and he’s got a Gilbert Chemistry Set he never uses because it turned out to be boring to follow the recommended “experiments” involving all the little cubical glass bottles of pigmented powders labeled Sulfur, and Cobalt, and NaCl. Which he idly, diabolically combined, to create no result at all. No pops or fizzes or explosions. He senses himself to be the luckiest possible boy. Just the tonnage per-square-inch, of all that luck, would cause a soul to implode, if it ever opened to consciousness of good-fortune for even an instant, in an ordinary kitchen on a Saturday morning. Mischal may be an Archangel of many ancient Offices, indeed a creature of mythic power and privilege and oversight, from before all things, but as a Guardian Angel in his devotion he can lose awareness of any existence of his own, apart from the child in 1976, the golden flesh, even then already fading and dying. Now, soon, this Virgil Sproehnle’s chromosomal code will keep spelling out its sentence forever, and never stop spelling it, with perfect accuracy. That boy’s skin and hair and bone will come out among the stars; this is a theological necessity. Mischal lifts the razor. He pulls the editor’s chair on its casters closer to the workbench. And he locks the fresh filmstrip on the block-cleats.

With the razor on the block, he makes the cut. Then tears off a bit of press-tape and applies it, marrying two separate instants. Then mounts the new reel on the spindle. Locks the hub. And he turns the crank, to set the reels in forward-motion again:

This time, the boy at the icebox ignores the Tupperware pitcher of blue Kool-Aid. Instead, he takes out the blender’s frosty column – heavy fluted glass – wherein wells the eternal supply of his father’s daiquiris, to be refreshed any time, just by adding a few ice cubes, a little more daiquiri mix, a little booze, and tossing it onto ol’ Mister Hamilton Beach for a second or two, and voila, you got yourself some Okinawa Dog Juice. “You wouldn’t like it,” says his dad. He’s leaning by the stove, one hand at the hanging wrist making the bland wash-motions he keeps up all the time, always rinsing Vietnam. “Tastes a lot like Kool-Aid actually. But I’m afraid you wouldn’t like the rum.”

Then mom’s footsteps start – coming up the basement stairs, along with the creak of the wicker laundry basket – and Dad tells his son, “Uh-oh.”

Father and son both duck for their Innocent Corner – not because they’ve been up to any misbehavior, but just because they are the best of friends, that’s all. And mom is on a blitzkrieg this morning. Their Innocent Corner is at the end of the table. Dad advises in a sidewise whisper, “…Yep: blitzkrieg.”

At the last minute, he makes a wink, because Mom is arriving at the top stair with the heaped laundry basket. She used to be fun when she still liked the Benny Goodman music and helped with the gardening and wore culottes. The pitcher of daiquiris stands on the counter shedding a vapor, like a fresh, ready Atlas missile in its silo. And suddenly Virgil is liberated to officially resent his mother’s showing up like this. She’s been turning into this weary cop. There’s the hard grey in her hair. And the man-like shoulder when she carries the laundry. She used to be vulnerable when she spent mornings hiding in the dimness of the house and she kept her hair straw-colored with bottled chemicals, so blonde and big and stiff, it made her body smaller. That hair of hers was the torch in the house. When Virgil was still tumbling within a very small world, he was constantly aware of that blaze of hair, of where it was, and which direction it was moving, its glamor increased by the disappointing surprise of her weak chin, the poor little matchstick of her face. When she let it grow out uncolored, it got limper and thinner and then she cut it.

“Virgil?” she says.

She puts the laundry on the kitchen counter, but still her own body is a laundry basket she can never put down except at night.

“I don’t want you to play any more with that little girl Ricki Moss. I’ve been downstairs behind the furnace cleaning up a thousand little bits of candlewax. She’s not allowed over here anymore. You two could have started a housefire. I’ll talk to her mother. And I want you to clean your room, too. Your room’s a pig sty.

“And you,” she turns, leaving Virgil alone.

Which must mean she doesn’t suspect, exactly, what goes on behind the furnace. Virgil sits there in an imitation of innocence, unmoving but with a toxin spreading and numbing. He always knew he and Ricki could have been seen by anybody who happened to look through a cellar window. He always knew that. He should have cleaned up the little bent paper matches.

“You haven’t gotten to the car,” says his mother. “Have you.”

“Honey, it’s Saturday. Virgil and I were just going to have a daiquiri. Weren’t we, Virge? Have a cigar maybe.” Everybody knows he’ll never wash the car, it’s all part of the vaudeville in the house.

But his father has already hopped up – because he’s such a lightweight fundamentally, so easy to set in motion, while mom always, and increasingly, developed a central governmental heaviness – and capping his droopy wrist with the good hand, he stands at the laundry basket. “Where do you want this, babe?” And the basket is already afloat.

“The living room. Put it on the couch.”

A fact of life comes clear: the servile move fast and stay agile and stay in trim. The powerful don’t. Dad always did jump up. She, by contrast, gets heavier when addressed, and she’s free to put her gaze right on people. Ed Sproehnle’s gaze always flickers. You ask him to move a laundry basket, and a little job like that becomes a sort of bag he can thrust his whole head inside. Indeed, that’s what the future would reveal, when he finally did move out. The man would be regularly visible roaming Terra Linda pretending to have somewhere to go, pretending to have some reason for being out on the sidewalks, while his mother would be the one with the actual job and the nice clothes and the company benefits, at Bank of America every afternoon, behind bulletproof glass enshrined, where cars pull up, where that stainless-steel drawer thrusts outdoors dispensing virgin cash. During those years, when his father lived across town in a place with a metal door that rolled up, he would limp around Terra Linda, on errands that might look urgent judging by his stride, though in fact he wouldn’t be doing anything at all, other than, say, going down around the old harbor to watch the tide come in, or dropping by the Dunkin’ Donuts, to sit there and read rumpled-up newspapers which had been  left behind by customers who’d paid the full twenty-five cents for them. All over town Ed Sproehnle would stride with his rejoicing galloping to greet anybody who came along. It was easy to picture him at work, at the Dump scurrying around on the orders of his bosses, as if ready to burst with thankfulness, petting his hand wherever he went. Once Virgil did go there. It was the days when he went around alone pretending he was riding the bike they’d promised him. Near the gate of the Dump, he stood across the street, for as much as a half-hour observing his own father inside the plywood shack taking people’s Dump fees through the window. He had a way of greeting each customer with a smart knock on the brow combining a military salute with a self-whack. When he did give up booze, it had the effect of making him all the humbler and purer. The day would come when, in his high-school years, Virgil would see his father out there on foot crossing six-lane Freitas Parkway, and he would actually hide behind the Jack-in-the-Box Clown, until his own father passed. Because he had seen: at the Dump, he’d seen from across the street, two men who work with Ed Sproehnle: they made fed-up, weary faces when his father’s back was turned. He had seen that.

Then, still holding the laundry basket in the doorway, his father spins back in the room. “Oh. I found a card from Five Star Appliance. They tried to deliver something.”

They both know what this is about. “Ed,” says his mother, placing her hands on the counter, “I made a down payment.” It’s obvious, but she specifies anyway, “On a decent television.”

This is Virgil’s fault, and he’s sorry, he could have told his mother he didn’t need a television. A new television would be great but not if it’s going to make people argue.

His father repeats what he’s said on other occasions, “The one we’ve got is perfectly good,” with its small squashed image onscreen, a queasy crystal ball eternally in black-and-white, or rather olive-and-white, because direct afternoon sunshine frosts it. When the ballet dancer lifts a pointed toe, on that warped screen, her elephantine calf goes whanging out as a bloated boomerang.

“A TV would have to be paid for,” says his father, floating the basket around, to gesture at the whole house, its limits.

“I want” – (she always says this) – “to have at least one thing normal.” Efforts at normalcy in the house are for the sake of the growing boy. “A little money will appear,” she confides, but telling Virgil, turning to him, as if he were the judge here.

At that point, therefore, his father’s eyes dull over, they glaze in defeat, and he carries the basket out into the living room. “I’ll call them,” he says as he goes. “Absolutely, I’ll tell them not to deliver.” So he says. But a strange thing has happened right there: the TV will arrive now. Ed’s forbidding the thing will have the effect of clearing the way. A little extra money will appear, from among her nests of dismissed coins and dollars around the house. The time has come when Virgil must take the measure of his miniaturized father, viewing him already through the time-travel telescope, while the wiry, handsome man – he always did have a full healthy head of hair – limps away into the living room with the laundry basket. Bye, Dad.

So the boy stands up from the kitchen table. The strong ones in the world move with deliberateness, and maybe he’s only ten, but still Virgil slows himself down and he crosses the kitchen with an economy of motion, to get the pitcher of daiquiris and put it away, looking to his mom’s eyes directly. And she to him. There’s a coalition between mother and son, the world taking shape between them. He puts a hand on the booze. But in response she shrugs: It’s not too early: go ahead: might as well start him drinking. It’s almost lunch. Get him started.









From Dust




So now, supposedly, something immortal and infinite was going to be made, out of a thing that originated in just one place and time. – For that seems always to have been the belief, and the working assumption: that from dust, something “deathless” could come. A creature beginning on Robinsong Lane, in Terra Linda, California, a creature who before 1966 was nowhere to be found, would now perdure, and thrive eternally and enter among the stars. That’s been the belief.

Here he was now, thirty years later in his bathroom, the being which had a beginning but shall have no end, the man himself full-grown in Earth, proprietor of a sixteen-room house in Pacific Heights, standing naked on the bathroom’s marble floor, while his fingers kept groping to locate and uproot the last old gluteal lint – his face lifted to the mirror, his two eyes soldered together in blind suspense, when, at that moment, he heard the baby’s cry from down the hall, and an infant’s problems are so easily fixable, its complaints are so answerable, its cry is so miniature, the infant itself such a muffled thing, its little misery rises as a form of comfort and joy. He lifted his voice to shout down the corridors, “Are you females tormenting the poor child?”

He had to share this magnificence, it was like madness, and he burst through both closed doors. Dweezling his personal buttcrack fuzz between his fingers, where magician-like he could rub it to disappearance, he came naked into the hallway (beware, Guadalupe!) and he strode the long corridor to the bedroom, where the two women sat with the baby, their four breasts bared.

Which made him regret the lack of a bathtowel, or any kind of cover, and he had to float his empty gaze away from the sight of his women. He always did stalk the halls this way unashamed. But now this morning – and increasingly, too – somehow his innocence was no longer perfect. “I’ll tell you,” he began with bluster, “he’s probably out in the neighborhood right now stealing people’s firewood.”

This from an earlier ongoing conversation. About Sheila’s stepfather.

She didn’t answer. She seemed preoccupied with tucking the baby around herself. At last she said, “He’s in his workshop.” And she added, “Virgil, you’ll frighten Lupe like that.”

Isobel, sliding a business letter in its cardboard envelope, didn’t look up. Honestly he loved how the pair of women ganged up on him, the two of them in their alliances were so witty and executive together. His own comparative dimness around the place had become one of his assured pleasures, a royal imbecility. He didn’t even like leaving the place anymore. Rather just hang around. Pester the girls. Forget about Aardent. He had just now, in the hallway, walked through a zone of saddest nostalgia from somewhere, a smell of grief, from way back, because a literal smell had come back, something scorched, like coffee, rubber, roasted earth. It was only his own male tar axillary smell, but it was also something sad and irremediable: It was the scorched earth in the backyard, in Robinsong Lane, beyond the vegetable garden, where garbage was incinerated, his father with a rake ruling over it. Once upon a time, a flame had stood pale in the sunshine. And it left behind only tinfoil and sooty cans. And no longer a father to govern it. And it was something else, too. It was something farther back. It was a smell of electrical wires overheating. One Christmas when he was six, he got a genuine Lionel train. And its transformer was a heavy box, of that leaden plastic from the forties (called Bakelite; thus his father could estimate it to be a valuable antique), with one single, large, maniacal control-dial. Which, as the train was slowed down, made a frustrated buzz like a toaster, and it broadcast the burnt smell of electrical current being resisted and clogging up, a smell that shares in the marvelous total nervous-system overload in a boy on Christmas morning, who lies in fetal position, cheek on carpet, one eye crushed, so getting the right Cyclops perspective to imagine his toy train is swollen with force. He was too young, then, to know how backward his home was. The reality was that, above and all around the boy, his parents were negotiating in their cowardly disappointments reducing the world to the size of their own failure. Now, facing his two women, a grown man was crippled because a memory in the hallway had bogged him down.

Isobel, wife of priority, told Sheila, “Lupe likes being frightened. She’ll turn up any minute. Watch.”

A little kidding meant she felt all right today. Her robe carelessly open, the pithy chest of the woman he’d married, her nipples’ peculiar interesting length, how wonderfully selfish in desire she used to be, abrupt, antsy, enterprising. Without doubt, in the nights, she would be the one taking the initiative, not Sheila. Virgil’s hands hung at arm’s length, joined. Usually, his nudity in the corridors was a way of putting on a costume, like a harmless jester-costume, or a baby-costume. Today he felt indecent and undefended as he never used to feel – and it was because of the new atmosphere – because in bed, in the nights, deep in the structure of their shared lives in the dark, a very heavy foundation had oozed, geologically, into some kind of new shape. Things on the surface would be skewed therefore, naturally. Here intruding upon the two women bare-breasted, he had entered straight into a connubial space where, in his banished lewd imagination, there always lingered only an after-image, something like Lava Lamp shapes touching or teasing. The younger woman had let her forearm rise modestly. She never did that before.

So this seemed an instance where a man has to barge cheerfully, insensitively straight through, via the always-dependable device of male obtuseness. He started in on the topic of Sheila’s father, “He just trespasses. The neighbors on that side said they thought at first he was somebody’s gardener peeing in the bushes. I know it’s a matter of principle with him, but it looks crazy, and is crazy. And bear in mind, he’s on parole. He should be using toilets, at least for the duration. Fortunately, we’ve got Edward and Anthony.” (Edward and Anthony being the elderly college professors next door, who liked Bob and forgave his foraging in hedgerows, peeing behind their pool house.) “They actually mentioned they’d be willing strew wood around, firewood-sized. Like, for him to pick up, as if it were deadfall. I think that’s funny. Like how you stock a pond with fish. Seriously, they offered. Just for Bob to find.”

The odd sweetness of this offer wasn’t apparent to his two women. They weren’t amused. Isobel was idly tearing off the loose strip (“OPEN HERE”) from her cardboard envelope. It was from the bank courier. So the money was in the bank. The transfer, in fact, had already been accomplished by wire yesterday. This was the official notice, right on schedule, as promised.

“She wants a banjo,” said Isobel.

“Oh, good, yes, but let me just tell you something,” he started hanging out in the doorway menacingly, the primate in its own personal mansion, as if too self-pleased to notice the beauty everywhere, and the secret chafe everywhere. “It’s a lucky thing Bob was arraigned so easy. Because I’ve found some things. I’ve found a few little circumstances. He claims he did so much research to be sure the algae wouldn’t damage the whole system. But he was totally ignorant of something. There’s something called the ‘Isleton Cut-Off.’ It’s like a canal. It’s right on the middle of the whole California water-delivery system. That algae could have ended up all over Southern California.” (Which prospect – a ruined Los Angeles – might have only delighted Bob the more.)

The younger of his two wives spoke downward over Milton’s head, which was now back at work, “…He’s so hungry he hardly has time to breathe, poor bubb.”

Sheila, she was unattainable. She was equipped with some inner gyroscope that aimed her at the future – so stubborn-minded, so amazingly talkative sometimes, how she went on and on, explaining scientific things, it was the main pleasure of every dinnertime. Her flights into “quantum” things. Or so-called “astrobiology.” Next fall, at last, would come the first semester at college.

“If it had gotten past Dominy Dam? The water system would have crumbled all the way to Los Angeles. Picture it, Beverly Hills, the whole entertainment industry without flushing toilets. Picture the movie business suddenly, on an hour-by-hour basis. The whole aerospace-defense-military industry is down there: they’d be down there without toilets. So just picture that.”

None of this was amusing. His audience increased to three, for Milton again pulled away from the bosom to see the spectacle of the person in the doorway. “My point is – He’s out on bail, he might as well not steal people’s wood.” Milton gazed at his father for just a bit longer, then went back to sucking, having gotten the basic idea.

Isobel said, “Virgil, is it possible you’re getting hairier?” and she told Sheila, “Working out at a gym does that.”

Sheila only watched her baby, who was getting a new grip on the globe with both hands, staring up at the young mother who was his own. While keeping her attention on the babe, she said, “He wasn’t stealing firewood. It was deadfall. It’s his frugality. He was gleaning.”

“In Pacific Heights.”

Her gaze on the baby was growing sad. All his joking was cruel mockery of Bob Newton, and he hadn’t meant that.

“Your father’s fine, sweetheart, he’s in his workshop making sticks. I can hear him.”

“The ‘incompetence’ defense is undignified for him.”

They’d all heard this before. So on that whiny note, her speech halted. Only time and patience were needed in this house. Everything was temporary. The team of lawyers were weaving their basket with infinite skill. Meanwhile, here in this house, in other rooms and at other times, something was kindling, which he could only be patient with.

Isobel, holding the cardboard envelope, said, “We got our last big installment.”

“Yeah, and I’ll be the one to have to spend the day dealing with brokers, because if I don’t, if it just sits there, we’ll be losing a thousand dollars a minute, with the Treasury rates and the money market where it is. And the bridge loan.”

“Virgil? You know, you should be ashamed of yourself, by the way. You don’t know where your own father was born.”

“He was born in Maine,” he said, defensive beforehand – because the trap of memory was closing around him: he’d never finished the birth certificate. The document was never properly recorded, that day in North Liberty. “Okay. Did they call?”

“Our little boy doesn’t exist yet. Did you know he doesn’t officially exist? The grace period ends next week.”

And I’m doing the banking.”

“I could do the banking,” said Sheila, cupping the baby’s occiput. She always came back fast, from the land of hurt feelings. Her father would in fact come out all right, at least in a legal sense. She said, “I’m sure the banking is not completely esoteric.”

“Nope, sorry,” he folded his forearms over his chest in the doorway sustaining in their sight the pale heavy wand of generation, in its idleness. Whenever a fellow has waded in some incalculable blunder, like his entering here at all, he can always just keep wading deeper, toward exiting straight out the other side. “The secret of investing is inertia. Which I’ve got the most of.”

However, a chill had been growing in the room and he realized what was happening: all this clowning was aimed at buoying up Isobel. She was the problem. Somewhere, since his arrival, she had fallen over one of her cliffs dragging everything down on that side. His intrusion had done it. She’d stopped listening, and, with her one shoulder pricked up high, she had begun picking disconsolately at the torn mouth of the cardboard courier envelope. Soon she would get up and leave, to vanish into her studio. The cardboard envelope was one of those with a paper pull-tab and an embedded string. That torn-off strip would be today’s subject for a painting. She was ironing it out on her knee. By noon, it would be photographed against the floor and its image would be projected on big Masonite board. By tomorrow, paint-by-numbers-style, she’d have immortalized another big image of a piece of litter. Another day, another 4-by-8 sheet of Masonite.

“Be right back,” she said, and she got up and left.

He stood aside while she passed, her warden, her attendant nurse, her obstacle. She was capable of being in the same rooms with people but yet be always burrowing away to one side. She explained as she went, “I’ll just put something in my studio.”

They watched her go. One shoulder higher than the other. Up the hall. And turn down to the staircase. It was possible that she wouldn’t come out now till afternoon.

He made a facial expression of inquiry.

Sheila shrugged. “She did seem fine.”

This imaginary odor would persist high in his brain-pan all day, scorched earth, the Lionel train, forever lost, soot, the bitterness that is life’s ecological foundation, soil, cocoa, all the infinite hurt feelings.

He said, “Did you tell her the man is coming? To air-condition the barn?”

Sheila watched Milton suck. “I think she knows. I think I’m simply not mentioning the barn. She could go back to throwing everything out.”

Virgil wanted to sit on the bed but he didn’t. What he wanted was to put his nakedness away somewhere but he wasn’t doing anything about that either, obviously.

He suggested, “Art valuation was her business. So maybe she knows. They do only take a few hours. Maybe they don’t qualify as ‘art,’ really.”

In fact, each big painting was, for the artist herself, more like a blindfold every day. Something instead of having a life. Every day the whistle of the teakettle. The clink of a ceramic mug and the dribble of coffee through the filter. The snap of the latch on her studio door as she shut herself in. All day the muffled sound of the public radio station in there.

Sheila said, “You know what she told me? Long ago when we were talking? She said she’d always been your protector.”

She was referring to a sort of pact Sheila and Virgil had made, to be Isobel’s protectors, to hold tight to her while she was going through her long period of… introspection? … insecurity?

“Back when it was just you two, when you married,” said Sheila, “she saw herself rescuing you by marrying you, like in your youth together. She saw you as a good thing she was making possible.”

He said, “Yeah, then I got complicated, didn’t I. Post-rescue.”

In the long ongoing drama of his unforgivability in the rooms of this house, the two women’s relationship was always the important one. And they’d built it on the basis of excluding him, in all justice.

In the days right after the crime, he’d actually gone into a period of stupid indecision, hiding the fact of it, living in anguish and deceit around the Marina apartment. Then the young woman in the mountains made things inevitable: she called him up on the phone: she said she’d gone to the doctor and had a positive pregnancy test and it was time to have a conversation. Virgil pictured divorce. He pictured rejection by both women. He sat Isobel down across from himself and took both her hands in his, and his words were, “Sweetheart, I have to tell you something important, about something that happened. …That I’ve done,” he amended.

He pictured business failure, too, because in the real world, his wife was his introduction, she was his remote-control guidance system, she was his amulet.

But instead, what happened was – as necessary talks went on and acquaintanceship among the three of them grew – and as there were doctor appointments, and sonograms, as well as court dates for “Dr. Bob” – eventually there came a day in summer when Isobel said to him, “I want Sheila to come live in the city. During this time, during the pregnancy, when we can help. We can find someplace. And I guess her father too. All their court dates are down here. We can just find someplace.” After that, everything began to marry the three of them together, Bob’s alarming mental condition, the apartment-hunting, which turned into house-hunting, childbirth classes, choices among countertop surfaces. We can just find someplace.

“So isn’t that interesting?” said Sheila. The babe had done enough eating and had laid his head down, wide-eyed. “That she was the caretaker?”

From the staircase came the sounds of Isobel coming back.

Virgil shuffled around within the doorway, and he rubbed his upper arms. “I’m taking a shower,” he said, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

While the wife got back in the room they stayed silent. Then Sheila asked her, “That cardboard strip is going to be today’s painting?”

She never discussed her painting. It was a miscalculation, to ask.

She pretended nothing had been said. Sitting on the bed, shrugging back into the atmosphere, she complained irritably, “Virgil, how could you not know where your father was born? It would naturally come up in conversations.”

“We didn’t have… conversations in my home,” said Virgil. He reached out. “Can I look at that?”

She passed him the cardboard envelope. There wasn’t much inside: notification, routing numbers and so on, legal disclaimers. He held it back out to her. And he turned to the hallway and left, wearing his nakedness-costume on behind too. Sheila, there, had made a striking offer: she would handle the money. Well, in the process, she would learn. He said, as he went away up the hall, “On second thought, you do the money, Sheila. Fine. Go talk to ’em. Talk to Nancy first. She’s great.”

She’d been procrastinating on the college applications. If she were running the investments, it would get her in motion. And she’d get the hang of finances.

“You know Nancy on the Embarcadero. She’s great.”

“A realtor called, too,” she said.

“I’m taking a shower.” Swaggering up the corridor of his own sixteen-room house, he showed his women the sorry backside of man. Guadalupe, as a matter of fact, did steer clear of the northeast wing during the mornings.

“Listen, Virgil, wait, listen to this, then it’s your thing.”

She pushed a button on the phone console. Someone from the wonderfully named firm of “Immer Genug & Yissurim,” like something out of nursery rhymes, identified himself as a realtor. He seemed to know already, all about the Artemisia County development. He had a plan. He wanted to finance the development more efficiently. It was something his office specialized in.

“It’s a real estate tax hedge,” Virgil said with certainty. Realtors, the whole earth was swarmed over by realtors, increasingly, everywhere with their cell phones, with their GPS-map screens in the dashboards, roaming, merely matching sellers as they lose their grip with buyers as they reach out grasping, merely putting 2 and 2 together. Nature abhors a vacuum: realtors act to fill it. On the tray in the hall was his still-untouched breakfast. Juice and a quarter-cabbage, and his tea. He touched the carafe and it was merely warm. Calorie-restriction’s hunger – its chronic dizziness – was something he was almost getting used to, a dizziness he could use all day and apply, dizziness an engine, dizziness to keep himself moving forward – and this particular six-ounce glass was a handle he could grab, room-temperature, delicious.

Then came the second message, the Cielo County Recorder’s Office.

He said. “I can go to the Veteran’s Administration. It’s in Oakland. They’ll have records. I’ll do it today.” He took in the rest of the juice and he traveled through the doorway out of their sight, restoring them to their intimacy.

In the master bedroom, the big bed was a pristine tablet, eternally well-made, always scorned for the actual bed they always did all pile into, Sheila’s, every night.

“Virgil?” Sheila’s voice came down the corridor. “Don’t you go accusing Bob of firewood theft. I’ll talk to him.”

“The defense industry and the entertainment industry without flushing toilets,” Isobel said back in the other room. “…Civilization being only a veneer…”

Isobel – his “first” wife, his true wife – was making a display of healthy attitude and good humor today.

Regarding his own naked figure in the bathroom mirror, he didn’t look unusually hairy. There is no way a gym regimen would make a man hairier.

It miffed him, a little, to hear she once thought herself the strong one, the caretaker. What a misunderstanding! He would never have known or suspected. Unless he’d been told. Every man should have two women, just because of how it enriches communications within the house. That – the richness of the general conversation, more than the excess beauty – was the wealth of polygamy, the complexity of their little society, how information bounced, the triangulations that were possible. If he considered the new nighttime sounds in bed – and how it might change everything, far apart from his own irrelevant envious lust – it might seem to even up the score, deep in the lists of justice: he wouldn’t have to affect so much public penance, now they had their separate explorations. But yet also there was a danger, because (and they would all know this) such a situation could go off in a number of different ways. And nobody wanted anything to change. That was important. This was heavenly and it had to stay that way. He watched his own redder-than-usual face in the mirror while he shouted back to the far room, “Keep Bob on the wild rice project. Wild rice is what we’ll need when the veneer of civilization breaks down.

So Sheila would take over the investments. Her penetrating mind would go to work, and succeed way better than he ever did. It made a happy picture, her encounter with the accountant, and then the advisor, because, like a daughter, she’ll go on, she’ll survive him, off into the century. He bellowed, again generally outward, while watching his pressurized face in the mirror, “Yeah. When we’ll be all stealing each other’s firewood. In Pacific Heights, going to the bathroom in the bushes.

He felt entitled. Entitled to administer a remark or two.

Because, while the slaughterhouse-tiled stall started thundering under the scalding gush – and he stepped into the column of those steamclouds, of that daily common forgiveness – he gave a little thought to what a good man he, mostly, managed to be. Truthfully, he didn’t want to get dressed and go to Aardent. Aardent was boring, and it was boring because he was fundamentally always a half-assed, harmless, guileless kind of businessman. He’d started being frank with himself about this. Another result of being triangulated between two wives.

There had been flirting going on in that room, that was the definite feeling. Of course everybody had seen everybody’s breasts before, and he knew, they’d only been trying again feeding Isobel’s nipple to Milton, but he’d felt like a trespasser because those two women were so alert to each other. He, in this place infested by love, had been set off to one side, rather correctly, him with his monkish diet. Pure basic, censored, jealous desire vaporizes to a spirituality that is dizzying, hyperventilating, transfiguring. One had to think the two of them shared a purity of lust superior to the world’s old half-evolved mean floor, ultra-lightened, without the phallus in the middle, because it ought to have been liberated, then, from the asterisk of possible impregnation. Their occult gravitation. He had half an idea desire might have already begun way back when Isobel first started saying, We can just find someplace. In a kind of telepathy already, way back then.

When they did first meet, they actually laughed. They laughed together within five minutes. That laughter, that was the moment when their mercy was saving him, though he couldn’t have known it then on that day. On that day, he was simply in agony. It was at Cliff House, in the bar, where they’d arranged a meeting because Cliff House seemed neutral enough; and safe; a place a visiting country girl would be able to find. She was sitting alone at a window table waiting for them. Standing by the reservation book, they could see her – through the big potted palm. And Isobel whispered, “Virgil, she’s somebody.”

“You mean you recognize her?”

“No, she’s just…”

They both spied on her at her window seat, her Egyptian nose in profile, the eyelashes that seemed naturally mascaraed, the famous spine planted still springy despite her embarrassed condition. Virgil would go on being unforgivable but, right at that moment, he felt – was this forgivable? – proud. Proud of the young woman. Proud before his wife. See what I got?

Isobel pitched her voice to his ear, below the restaurant clatter, “Your husband bonks some girl and you kind of expect her to be just anybody. Or a nobody. But she’s… somebody.”

The word bonk was the worst so far. But he went on submitting, to sidelong blows, because he did deserve them. Also, he knew what she meant, you could see it, the young woman sitting alone with her glass of ice water was a girl whose mother was long dead, and whose father was in jail for strange terrible reasons, and she’d been bonked (technically, literally) without her consent, and was now inhabited by that microscopic tyrant, the entire future of the Universe; and meanwhile she had planted herself there making sovereign space for herself. Virgil hadn’t laid eyes on her, not since the one day. They’d done a lot of talking on the phone, but he hadn’t seen her. The big bundle of tied-back hair.

The whole idea of Sheila Carmel had been growing more complicated, too, in his wife’s mind, and in Virgil’s own mind – because for one thing, the Dominy Dam story had been in the news. The sabotage story was going to skew Aardent’s PR plans, in some direction he had no idea how to use yet: that a dam had been undermined by a scientist with an axe to grind. The scientist Robert Newton seemed to be renowned within a certain limited world. That, too, was something Isobel wanted to meet up with.

When they entered the dining room, she rose from her chair, and – (this is my wife Isobel; Isobel, this is Sheila) – the two women met over the tabletop and briefly saw deep into the flawed depths of each other’s eyes, weighing each other’s resolve, each other’s give-and-take. Virgil beside them was shrunken to a child – in his impertinence, his uselessness – unable to stop spying openly on this meeting. But he did stop – and he sat down while the two women of slightly different heights assessed each other. When everyone was seated, Isobel said:

“So,” – with a kindly smile – “You’re the girl.”

The so-called girl herself made a smile and answered, “So you’re the wife.”

Out from under her fork, Isobel slid the paper napkin. She unfolded it, watching her own hands. “Let me say this. We understand the test was positive but we – Virgil and I – have no agenda either way. We want you to know that we’ll support you in any decision you make. It would be natural for you not to want to keep the baby, but any decision you make is fine, and financially doable, for us.”

It was typical of Isobel, and smart, to skip the niceties. Sheila, who on that day contained only the fiche printed on a uterine wall, turned to the grey weather of the Pacific Ocean outside the window, the mountainous slippery rocks offshore, the wheeling gulls, the tonnage of green swells coming over the rocks, the slime, evolution still happening out there. She turned back to Isobel.

“May I call you Isobel? You’re very generous, really, to offer.”

A clear no-thanks. That her family might be rich was something Virgil had started to think, during their phone conversations of the week. Any news stories about her father – which he kept finding, all online, nothing in print anymore – allowed him to infer that the Newton and Carmel clans might be well-off, an inference from little things, like the old man’s having taught at big schools. And the Zip codes checking out as upper-middle or better. The living in France, the living in Mexico.

The “girl” added, also, that Virgil should of course consider himself more than welcome to visit. And participate as he wants to.

One had the sense, at this table, of two witches meeting at last, and one bright new form of witchcraft defeating the other. Maybe defeat was what Isobel needed. It was something that he, as husband, had failed to provide. She was watching her own fingers curl a corner of her paper placemat’s scalloped border. Something in Sheila’s responses was making his wife entirely re-stack herself inside. She asked, “You’re Catholic.”

“No, not at all, I’m not anything, I just… can’t picture myself stopping this. Anyway I’m making no requirements of – your husband – of Virgil. He will have all the rights he wants. I’d be happy to sign something. If you like.”

There was another instant when the two women risked seeing each other’s eyes, crucibles, where crystals might form. He on his side was able to observe shamelessly, enjoying some sort of invisibility at the table, the invisibility granted to the uncomprehending.

Then both women did turn, to consider him at the table, Virgil right there – looking at him, as if he were the baby on their hands now. All he’d ever wanted was, from here on out, to conform himself to their desires and be malleable for as long as necessary, and, so, make a kind of life – but he must have had an expression on his face that was funny-looking, because his wife made a sigh, and then the two women flipped their gazes away, to irrelevant parts of the world, and they did actually start to laugh, separately. Both trying not to.

He grinned anyway even if he didn’t get it. Both of them put a stop to the enjoyment and sobered up – Sheila pulled the elements of her own place-setting in – and Isobel rolled her eyes, because at that point a young waiter appeared, with all his amateur unctuousness performing his introduction of himself. Isobel said, “We would like to see the wine list,” making a happy joining of her hands in her lap.

That, right there, was the moment of mercy, their laughter, if he’d only known it. Who knows, maybe he was, even now, doing some kind of penance. Maybe that was no joke. People never do know “why” they’re doing things, really. Or even exactly what they’re doing. Life channels you along inside a diagram, which is so vast and intricate, and so ancient in origin, his own little diagram began way back, with the uterine fiche he himself was once, inside Evelyn. If now he was still pantomiming “penance,” or whatever, it was of course his own mysterious process, not the women’s. They were working out their own deliverance. His own role in this new life, for now, was passive, like a spectator – yet in that way, he felt him presence to be curiously crucial. In this house where two witches’ powers still vied, Isobel’s older darker magic might have come to seem the stronger now – (especially recently in the new nighttime anointments, because definitely Isobel would be the instigator of that, moving on the mattress) – but he continued to have the opposite certainty, too, that young Sheila in fact governed by an inborn force of serenity.

He lifted up his face into the bullets of hot shower water, tight-grimacing like a baby coming through the birth canal, exactly the way little so-called “Milton Sproehnle” looked when he came out, the newborn forcing life’s turtleneck-sweater upon himself. He loved showers. He lifted his forearms and revolved. Amid falling waters, it was like flight. It was like rising, ascending, blind, he turned to face the spray again and opened his big stale mouth, wide, just as he did every morning, to let it be filled, from the molars on up, by the streams fired into it. Water is happy-making. He didn’t want to go to Aardent ever again.

Honestly he didn’t want to write press releases, or make cold calls on editors, he didn’t want to sit down and watch the entire three-disk DVD-ROM tutorial (it had been sitting on his desk for weeks) about how to do viral marketing campaigns with the changing new search-engines. He didn’t want to sit in that ergonomic chair, or bring up his email or play the phone messages or spend hours endlessly Googling affinity groups. Even the Dominy Dam campaign had bogged down. And that was his one single big account. Until there was a verdict in the case, he couldn’t spin it for media. He was betraying his few remaining loyal clients, by pretending he still cared about them. Well, he didn’t have to pretend anymore.

But then what would he do? That was the cliff. There was always that cliff, right there. He had always advanced other people’s fortunes, never his own: the obvious assumption had always been, he had no particular higher destiny of his own, because of what a low starting-point the house on Robinsong Lane was.

He spouted warm shower-water out of his mouth, and he said, as if he were telling somebody right there, “Yeah, I want to sell Aardent.”

So now he’d said it, within the tiled steamy booth that defined only a vertical shaft upward.

He never thought he’d actually say it. So he lifted his voice and pronounced it again loudly – with always a misty surrounding sense of indebtedness to his mother, Evelyn, the poor wife of Ed Sproehnle. Too bad she couldn’t hear him say it now. He actually shouted it, trying to reach the two women down the hall, “Hey, I want to sell Aardent!” although they wouldn’t hear him, far outside the mausoleum echo.

He could call it a midlife crisis. Selling Aardent. For what little it was still worth. To some ambitious newcomer or to a competitor. He’d never named the idea aloud, but he’d been carrying it around inside himself, in the form of an anxiety, an ache, always stuck wishbone-shaped in his cardiac area. For months or years or decades, that prong had been stuck in his heart. Taking care of everybody else all his life, beginning from childhood with his father, was why he ended up a PR man. He’d started in PR in his boyhood, in his own house, the house his mother used to say was “like Mexicans.” The wishbone was perhaps there in his chest when he was applying to colleges, or as a boy when he sat and watched TV and stuffed his face with Oreo cookies. Other houses had real yards. Theirs, the one rental on the block, was all hard dust, with tomatoes and beans and squash, the propane-powered fridge out back. There was a time when his father actually pretended to have “an office,” and actually did rent a space, in a dingy strip.

He’d forgotten this. For a year or so – Virgil was still in grade school – his father got dressed in the mornings and actually “commuted” to this “office.” On the day Virgil finally visited the place, it turned out to be nothing but a room, no windows, just a lot of old newspapers in stacks, styrofoam coffee-cups from the bakery. There wasn’t even a phone in there. It wasn’t long before his father gave up that pretense and came home and began mostly staying around the yard, gardening in his pajamas.

Well, all that was decades ago. Now this wishbone-shaped ache was something he could lift carefully out – lift up from out of its imprint – all thanks to the rich, new background-atmosphere in this house. This mysteriously triangular love. And the bulge of not thinking too closely about that.

A shower each morning is a kind of small echoing eternity where things don’t matter so much. That’s the whole point of it: things’ not mattering for a minute. This wishbone inside himself, it was congenital. He was born with an emptiness and/or some kind of secret uselessness, inherited from his father, his peculiar father “Ed,” who didn’t even have a birthplace in memory anymore, the forgettable man, who, even in life, was always evaporating away from situations. The man had succeeded in leading his entire life that way, shrinking away from leaving a print anywhere. The Veterans Administration file on Edward Sproehnle, if it existed and could be found, would turn out be as scant as possible. Already the man’s existence was remembered by nobody, nobody at all. Nor did history show the slightest dent. Only two or three years now since the man died, the world had flowed together again. Or even while the man was alive, the world flowed over him.



A trivial anxiety in Earth – (involving an instructional DVD-ROM about viral marketing) – is a simple thing for a Tutelary Office to smooth over. Leftover of the Old Dispensation, it’s the kind of typical minor guilty qualm that can be observed to melt away under – alone! – the jets of a hot shower.

They memoed the Tutelary Office of Guadalupe Apoderada. (If/when a certain three-disk tutorial entitled “Raise Your Hit Rate!” came into the house for home viewing, Guadalupe might misplace it, then later accidentally throw it away.) A similar note went to those of the janitorial housekeepers at Aardent’s downtown office. Soon, that DVD-ROM will no longer exist.

But then the rest of the morning will lie before them, and the Guardians on the cloud (with the one unfortunate exception, as usual) will have returned to their customary morning belvedere, just to watch, forming in Heaven a wreath, below them a vignette where the two women’s pajamas are open, the bedclothes the flesh of a rose, in a world where a little bit of initiative isn’t limited, and a cottony breath in the bedroom licenses all indolence, to make any witnessing Angels, in the New Clemency, cluster and seethe.

The baby, wet-faced, glutted, wriggles deeper. “He’s falling asleep,” the first wife tells the other, one hand holding the girl’s ankle, while her other hand continues to search her own throat.

Sheila, she takes a tangerine – it’s one of several in the bedside bowl – and she holds it at her lips to get the smell, not peeling it. So the older woman sighs because now the little golden ball has come between them, and she says, “Do you think Virgil knows?”

Sheila really has no defenses against Isobel’s having said that. It’s a cruelly unfair question. Knows about what? would be the natural response. Are a few nighttime dreamy confluences enough to make a something? To be a pattern? That it had never been mentioned was, until now, an important condition.

“O Virgil. What does Virgil ever notice,” she keens in mock despair, because possibly this can be put aside, “…now in his Boy Scout period?”

That’s what they’ve been calling this, his pleasure-resisting phase, his cheery isolation, his worrisome way of keeping preoccupied all day, then at night going to sleep with a concentrated leap. And then when morning comes, rising and deserting the bed before dawn. Of course he must know. They’re being unrealistic: Virgil knows. He must know. How could he not know? How could she and Isobel have gone on pretending, for their own sake, that Virgil doesn’t know?

If that’s the case, it’s been out in the open. Before words in public have ever touched it, it’s been a public fact. And now Isobel has asked, point-blank.

She can’t evade this. She begins by first clouding the air, “Remember what you mentioned once?” Her thumb goes under the tangerine peel, her elbows making a cradle to guide the babe in his sleep. Surely juice is going to dribble precisely on Milton’s exposed Buddha-belly. “You said a man doesn’t have relationships?”

“I said that?”

“A male’s most important relationship in life is with himself. Unlike a woman.”

“Oh, you misunderstood. Men have relationships of course, but men are just more selfish and self-referring inside their minds. So they lack this certain other resource.” Meaning, apparently, the hand on the ankle. “Who knows whether society does it to them? As a social thing it inflicts? Or whether they just come out like that.”

They both happen to be looking at Milton, typical perfect specimen.

She goes on, “I just notice women are other-people-directed. And, like, I guess men are ‘selfish’ honestly, but not necessarily in a bad sense. I feel like they have this high-noon showdown with their own selves. They’re all wound up in themselves. But he’s starting to notice you, I think.”


“It’s good for him. In light of how he’s been.”

There it is again, the idea that Virgil is dragging around under a burden of guilt, ever since North Liberty. She’s always promoting the idea. She adds, “Though Virgil’s never been as much as a sex-maniac as, you know, plenty of guys are.”

It’s always possible to wonder if, as a wife, she might feel threatened. Threatened by her. Being younger, she’ll be getting a whole different cross-section of Virgil. She peels the tangerine but steals a glance at the high-cheekboned blonde blue-eyed woman, Californian, born in the sixties. Instead of a born-in-the-eighties New Yorker. Totally different worlds. Also she’s an artist – and more of a sensualist; and a kind of all-around “expert”: in her personality there’s an added top-layer, a brilliant but impenetrable, hard layer, something fused with her being an artist – and one result is that she’s got this scary doting, her hand massaging that ankle, this hankering, with audacity like a man’s – whereas Sheila feels herself too simple, or plain, or artless, or maybe insensitive, maybe even cold. Or just, in her heart, busy with other things. They’re just different women in their souls. Sooner or later, it’s fundamental – physical love with Virgil is going to commence – and however that happens, it will reorganize everything.

Separating wedges of tangerine in her fingers, it will start getting drippy. The sleep-solid baby underneath will have to be moved. It will get drippy, then sticky.

The crib is closer to Isobel, and Isobel accepts the hand-off – while he actually stays asleep – and she floats him over and tucks him in. Her zippered long fleece robe is streaked at the hem with pigments from her studio, lavender, white, charcoal. Then she comes right back to bed, kneeling before the younger woman, attentively, so the tangerine is the only shield. Watching its inner globe emerge, the older woman says, “Anyway, it’s strange: how little he knows about himself. The average man, I mean. How little self-knowledge. How little anybody knows, about anybody. Or can know. I guess I find that endlessly astonishing. How surface everything is.”

How surface everything is: Isobel’s hand has come back to her ankle, a thumb stroking, and those apparently will be the last words spoken, at least for a while – and any Angels above will be seething more closely in their wreath – for the younger woman knows her own body is part of the “surface” of things, in this house. Like a possession or an acquisition here, entering into such concubinage, her responsibility here has grown ever more elaborate over the months. Isobel can be caught any time of day watching her with the recognizable old awe and cunning. And Virgil recently – it’s true, Isobel is right – has worn the same look once or twice. Her youth is like a pure economic fact, among the three of them.

Then she gives a couple of wedges across to Isobel, and the gesture feels like an agreement, to let the cards fall where they may, let all wealth be scattered. Let brute power reign, but power in the form of submission – especially when both of them enmouth their separate tangerine wedges and, wedded by the taste, they have to see each other’s eyes for a second and admit how surface everything is. There’s an inequality in the set-up, how the long-married woman, setting aside her other tangerine wedge, can take authority and make her want what she hadn’t thought to want. Until this day of Isobel’s actually speaking of it, all this had happened without express permission under sheets in the depths of sleep between them, so they had the excuse of unconsciousness, where tangency seemed to happen naturally, and distension worsen naturally, and then even surfeit, all without any worldly relevance, secret as a lizard who leaves its dried skin under something. In broad daylight, though, this manner of mirror-love turns out to have – just as much! – a sealed-off secrecy like dreams, thriving in distraction’s silent bell-jar. Outwardly, her own physical body serves as something Isobel can climb, ever higher in saving herself. Because love, its artifice, is still mortals’ best or only entitlement, to a portal in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, twisting in their bedsheets’ storm, so even the Angels share an unbearable sense of the limits of their own efficacy, high up, against their old background-color of powder blue. Paradise on Earth must, one day, be greater even than this, even this. Possibly the great and troubled Angel Mischal, absent now on his errands, may have some inkling of a universe complete and answered. Lesser beings, until then, must settle for these lips, these hands and slopes, and the limits they define. All love as finally disappointing as all History. The witnessing circle, above, is woven closer, as the older woman’s gilded hair spills over her blue eyes when she lifts them to the younger girl asking if this is right, through blonde strands of Clairol Nice’n’Easy “Champagne Fawn.” The fineness and straightness of her hair is one of Isobel’s glories, that’s what Sheila has always felt, strands so fine she’s always trying new shampoos to add thickness, unthinking that her hair is her best delicacy, though Sheila keeps telling her. She tells her all the time. She could go to Elizabeth Arden, too. But she seems to love her drugstore Clairol. Isobel Harkness’s joyless original isolation, that’s the old mystery at her center and it keeps coming through. Sheila lifts her ribcage to make it easier, and in the welling of permission she uses braille-reading fingertips to help her own vision in seeing the devoted face, the cheekbone, the brow in devotion purified, the lowered eyelids, the sharp Harkness nose with its nostril-pinch, the peachfuzz on the forehead of a forty-one-year-old, expert in causing these pangs. There was one girl in her dorm at Cranbrook, but they were both sixteen, and it was only a few silly bedtimes; it didn’t outlast the semester dorm relocation, and then forever after around campus, they avoided each other devoutly in panic. This, now, is broad daylight. Wherein Isobel chose to present the question brazenly: Do you think Virgil knows. The direct love of woman, she might have supposed, should have a less stagy character or been somehow utopian, because it ought to escape the – is it the political? – implications attaching to a man’s passion, the invisible ropes, the grasp of power elsewhere, everywhere, when he blazes up and pins down a woman. For that seizure of dominance must imply a shadow – which one forbids oneself to consider too closely, maybe because it suggests craven passivity, in herself, in woman. But yet, here in the love of a woman, too, there is the same mysterious unequal balancing, an ascendency by servitude, too paradoxical to consider, a leverage. She always will, still, more generally, desire the more obscene and political submission to the man’s deluded rule, as if something she loves about herself is the drama of her own improvidence. In that way, Isobel could be right, people’s one big relationship is with themselves, themselves alone, even in blindest passion. For a woman as much as for a man. One comes and drinks not to satisfy thirst only, but to see one’s own reflected image, but then at last, by troubling the waters, to see one’s reflection obliterated.

Isobel’s grasp: it regulates a flow. How surface everything is. It’s amazing. She had liked – and really would prefer! – to think she was submitting because this, this talent, is the older woman’s bridge back to the world, her skills, her arts. The Isobel Harkness in Sheila’s care, she’s like a knot, but a knot pulled so tight it’s hard as a pebble. After her husband’s adulterous recklessness, the wife at home was the one feeling guilty, because, in her own mind, she lights up her own adulterous past as “sordid.” It is, yes, dramatic. It’s a theatre every day in this oversized house – watching the man (the fundamentally happy man, the man who is lucky as all-get-out, and knows it) go through the unconvincing motions of remorse, while completely ignorant of his wife’s historic adulteries. This devoted labor of mouth and hand and tongue, this bodily wisdom, put into practice, seems like a working toward an imaginary grace, or illusory grace. But it is some kind of grace, too, already. It’s scary, she has no qualms about fair play, she is able to make Sheila’s entire form go concave. In the beginning, in their nightime discoveries, Sheila liked to think of herself as looking down, as with pity, upon the blonde head, of one whom she was succoring – but she knows herself to be a hypocrite, for more and more, as Isobel’s narrow hands discover the flowing distortion she can mold at will, it’s plain, how surface everything is indeed, how unfair is the attachment of the soul, it’s the truth, she’s an artist. This is the woman’s lonely, rank, delirious gift – to confer delirium, sometimes by outrages, which is surely how one might have considered this in soberer moments. The tremors of relief are going to arrive fast, and always right now, Sheila’s impulse is to balk, to resist. Whenever she can sense the bumps ahead, her impulse is to allow herself a last doubt: But what is the practicality of this? The meaning of this? The long-term future of this? It’s always her falling thought. Even from her earliest experiences – in high school being kissed and liking it – or sometimes if she had a serious boyfriend in New York – it was always her last insight, for she seems to have an emotional trick of going a little unwillingly down.

As the Angels had petitioned, then, and as they had hoped, Virgil now will have appeared in the corridor. Isobel won’t have ovulated yet. But that great day will surely come.

His breakfast tray is all he was looking for. He looks dressed to go out.

At the faraway end of the corridor, through two doorway frames, recessed in that camera-bellows he is arrested by the sight. He has always known this. He holds before himself what remains of his breakfast portion – a quarter-head of purple cabbage, lifted from the tray – he’s wearing his good sweater and jacket, flannel trousers, heavy shoes. His several worldly obligations today are stacked up high (the realtor’s tax shelter, the process of adding Sheila as trustee, the county bureaucrats in North Liberty). So he senses himself standing in a vestibule. And he drifts back, to slip away or at least be unseen, though the spectacle of love is always detaining. All these months he’d been telling himself he had perhaps gotten to be too wise anymore for lust. But “wisdom” is only a form of fatigue and muddle, because right now, he could face the intensest fires of it, and step directly in, purest swell of envy, the old central ridge hardening, and the prodding within the drapes of his expensive trousers, in seeing the face of the young woman so distracted by the inner loop pulled tight, the central prodding and pulse of his own, which his wife, his wife from the old days, used to covet so much when at last it brimmed she had a way of prizing it as amazing spilling coins. Back then, in their marriage, he would have considered it her demonstrative porn. Because she was always supposed to be the baser one. And he, then, he went around laying little ethical traps that would sum her up. He was a clever, fascist husband, inside that apartment, all those years he set up obstacles, and hoops, and hurdles for her to overcome – and she did overcome them – with each leap emerging more beastly – so, in part, this was what he made, this woman, it’s what he wants, his desire is a wringing, a shape traveling through him.

In fact, there was an odd little breath sound. Because they both look up at him.

This is voyeurism. This is an example of creepy watching. These two women, for a minute, might have been complete strangers to him, they were so unearthly.

He starts to turn and go. But it would look ridiculous to flee. So he stands there half turned, in profile for them, bowed over the breakfast tray. Holding his wedge of purple cabbage. It’s impossible, now, to say what the new rules will be. For one thing, now they know he knows.

Then he does go, to vanish from their sight, through the bedroom doorway that happens to be right there in front of him. Our social personalities are a fabric, and the fabric’s front side is entirely made out of the back side: the lush circuitry of unseen threads. We’re held together by everything we don’t know. By what we choose not to know.

If everyone, confessedly, knew everything! And admitted everything? What a mess: there’d be no basis for society. At present he has no ostensible reason for standing alone in the other bedroom. There’s the big bed, the cold sheets. Where maybe he’ll be sleeping alone for a while. That might make sense.

If he had to say exactly what he’s doing right now, while standing out of sight in another bedroom, it would be that he’s giving the women a little time to make themselves decent. Letting them get up and close the door maybe.

Sheila says, “Oh, Virgil,” in a kind of sympathetic grief.

He doesn’t want to come out. At the moment when they looked up, he was ogling them. Holding his purple, squeaky cabbage.

He answers, “What.” It’s an inherently grouchy word.

The possible scenario, the porn scenario, is that he swagger in there, tugging open the knot of his necktie, but that is not going to happen.

They won’t necessarily think he’s standing there in paralysis. They might suppose he’s doing something, like looking for some article of clothing, or flossing his teeth or something.

They’re all going to have to talk now. Talk will happen sooner or later. Then there will be changes.

In that room he can hear the sound of, probably, Isobel flopping and clambering. Up beside Sheila. The creak of the bedstead. They’ll be sitting up side-by-side watching the empty corridor.

Then it’s the younger one to speak, “…How’re ya doin’ there?”

He tells her he’s fine.

From this room, there is no other exit. If he’s going to go out today, he will have to pass through their sight. Sheila’s expression How’re you doin’ sounded, at least, conciliatory. But then when his wife speaks up – “Virgil, come on out” – the tone is more like something he has to obey.

So he does. Still holding his cabbage, called out onto the carpet before them, he wishes he didn’t have to look pissed-off but he can’t help resenting that he has fallen into stupid voyeurism. The purple cabbage is part of the problem. His fingers have been pinching off little purple bits like mad.

Now at least he’s stopped that. There’s no wastebasket so he has collected the purple squeaky bits on his palm.

Then Isobel – she can always be depended on – says, “Come on in here now, Virgil.” Her hand glides around on the blanket beside her, spreading frosting, then patting.

Always the master of the ironic cliché.

The Cadet Hokhma, at Boaz’s side, remarks, “You know, I kind of think he might be better not to.”

“Hokhma?” Along with being astonished, Boaz is slightly amused.

At a loss, she whines, “It’s just nothing’s that simple.”

He keeps looking at her. She’s amazing. He says, “Yes it’s this simple, now. This is the New Clemency. This is Meliorism. Things can be simple.”

She only goes on watching over the edge, knees and hands sunk in the cottony white. How is it that now she’s having misgivings?

She comes up with a sort of reflection: “It’s just everybody down there looks so fragile, really.”

In a way, it’s as if the two Cadets have changed places and Boaz finds himself the one not so fussy about people’s supposed fragility. “Just watch. Just watch, Hokhma.”

The older woman tilts hard against Sheila’s shoulder, and she purrs, still in cliché seductress mode, “We promise, Virge: nobody’s going to even touch you.”

Virgil bows his head and his hand smoothes down his little thinning spot. Facing up against his wife’s usual humor wins him a look of sympathy from Sheila. And then Sheila very gently sing-songs – such an irrelevant remark – she almost laughs – “Virgil, nothing goes on forever.”

Which means?

Surely it implies do come here, but it could mean plenty of things, it could mean be honest, give up the calorie-restricted diet, give up the aerobics, it’s futile, nobody lives forever, nobody’s perfect. Or she’s referring to the twin love before him that can’t go on forever. Or a marriage can’t go on forever. It’s almost a kind of benediction she’s laying upon the whole house, that nothing goes on forever. It does seem to mean, specifically, that at some point they’ll have to reconfigure this three-person stalemate in this house, something someday will click, then everything will be swapped around somehow.

Things can’t go on forever because what are the fertility drugs for? It’s something all three of them never mention. Pretend to be totally unaware of. That particular hypocrisy in this house is like a dreamy psychosis they all share. The poor doctor keeps getting lied to, or at least kidded along – about what’s actually supposed to be happening in these beds in this house. Which is a lot harder than the lying-to-yourself part, the kidding-yourself part. That’s the easy thing. That’s a cakewalk.

Still, he really doesn’t want to go in there where he truly doesn’t belong. What they’ve got is a warm distributed opulence, going on everywhere in this house, which, if he could ever be the slightest bit mature, or dispassionate, he might have taken a satisfaction in – like a sort of proprietor on the scene – while living in his usual state of desire, envy, voyeurism, “wisdom,” whatever.

“I wonder what bond rates are doing right this minute?” Against the bedstead Isobel wedges her shoulder beneath her girlfriend’s to slip behind her, embracing Sheila as hostage, the more voluptuous, a stand-in for her own taller, paler, blue-eyed self. So the younger one is Virgil’s confidante, now, in this, and they have to make some kind of significant eye contact – the rounder-breasted, the heavier-breasted, the high-IQ one, the studious microbiologist, the introverted one – because they, he and the “younger woman,” sense themselves to be the two beings in the room who must reach a decision regarding the older woman, the actual captive, hermit of the painting studio, her flesh chilled and puffy these days from the doses of Clomid, or the hormone shots maybe. The question was always Isobel, whether she can be awakened from her ancient, original colder enchantment.

So, breaking off Sheila’s gaze, he looks out the window. And he makes a little sigh. What he wants – and will end up doing – is just obey the central velvet prodding, which is the whole point of everything anyway, and he complains, “I was planning on not taking the car. Just to be aerobic I was thinking of maybe walking out to Geary. It’s an hour each way. And then get back in time to go to Oakland.”

So with that, it’s going to be inevitable. It’s as if now he’s here as kind of a stranger in the room. When he lived with Isobel as her husband in the Marina District, in his arrogance, in his shallowness and his youth – he actually had periods when he believed that the blonde woman he’d married was only, in her durable elastic flesh, equipped by an average rubbing merely to conclude a strictly mental, a purely nervous-system convulsion. Or she might even be an actress through-and-through. Even down at the innermost layer, still acting, because somehow passion was all always cerebral.

That’s actually how he thought. This woman, he slept beside her and talked to her, every night and every morning. A man and a woman travel from the altar to the grave. Living together in rooms. Believing whatever they believe.

He does amble to the bed. And he sits down whining, “How am I supposed to get any exercise? I have all this glucose gumming me up.”

That complaint, its docility, evokes from the younger woman a sad smile, just for him, just for their little conspiracy.

But then Isobel – her stern frown of practical-nurse know-how! – she rises to her knees behind Sheila, breasts in the open gown tasting air, nipples lengthening quick, as they always did – her nipples’ peculiar, always-interesting lengthiness – and she reaches to lift off Virgil’s coat, making him raise his arms cooperatively, like submitting to a straitjacket – but first he has to put his cabbage on the nightstand, and he pours out his handful of purple confetti neatly, turning his back, losing sight of the girl his secret collaborator. He and his old familiar trickster wife Isobel, what they have together now is this Sheila, warm as a rabbit, who can reproduce without fertility drugs, who has faith or whatever-it-is, she has enough for everybody, so Virgil swings around, his mouth actually still cold with toothpaste, his hair still damp from the shower. The long nipples of his wife, they demand a mouth and are his personal property by “legal marriage” but also by the immediate, piratical right of seizure. He remembers years ago, seeing them through the fabric of a clingy shirt she used to wear, it was a day when they hadn’t been married long. With some of her friends they were sitting out on a deck in the morning, and she was explaining how she hadn’t “married downward,” not at all, because this Virgil Sproehnle beside her in the sunshine had something better than money: he had Terra Linda! And her remark was, “Men born into money can be nitwits. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged.’” And how proud he was – of her, in her summary a little dose of charity, her nipples in the clingy shirt quickly erect then, in the thrill of satire itself! He already, that day, knew this thing about Isobel Harkness, about the construction of Isobel Harkness’s funny little soul: It wasn’t the breeze or the sunshine that aroused the two public, untouchable, side-by-side badges, it was pure wit, and it made him get a bit firm, obediently.

But things change, and now, emerging from years as her husband, what he wants is to dethrone the wit, overturn it and spill it, for her own good. He always did want the undertaking that is Isobel Harkness. This woman was always his real estate. He loves her in eternity. It’s the only way to think of it. That’s where he loves her: in a kind of place, eternity. Strange but true. It’s where, right now, he wants to humble her, and, if only for a minute, take the sharp focus out of her merry, ruling eye. So the Angels above in their delight and their concupiscence, they eddy and settle and weave, to witness the triune embrace of a mortal hour.

It will unfold that the man and the younger one will combine against the other, to try to make her suffer direst pleasure. And so the confusing hour has begun, when Virgil will never quite get his nice clothes fully removed but between the two wholly unclothed women be distracted to the point of having no existence except locally, no consciousness of a coming future or any regrettable past, but an existence only within the “specious present,” as the event is accurately seen in Eternity. After the little struggle on the bed has achieved what it can, Virgil, in an epiphany, will lie there coming to the realization that that life is perfect now: you do get what you deserve in the end, and this is perfection, he’s got everything, he’s basically done, and he can coast, and there’s nothing wrong with coasting. Best of all, he’s got his integrity here, and nothing to be ashamed of. All a man ever had to do, to get this, was just to stay regular, don’t do too much, don’t worry about trying to stick out and be conspicuous, just stay on the path. That’s what faith always was. You get what you’ve always, even vaguely, supposed you might. Finally then, completing earthly perfection, there will have arisen a small sound. The sound of a gurgle or squawk. Right there in the room. It’s a sound of jubilation coming from the crib, and the crib itself starts banging and banging and banging. Isobel has already lifted her head and she remarks, “Oh, he’s standing up.”

He is. He’s standing. This is the first time. If drunkenly, with a grip on the crib railing, he has dragged himself up to wobble there, delighted by the spectacle of play, wanting to join in. Because play. It’s one thing he knows all about, and he’s fairly rocking the entire crib, his grasp on the railing as he throws his hips around in celebration of his own new stance. So it’s a great day. It’s the boy’s first stance. Such a commonplace trick (Guardians on a cloud will know this) is almost as great a triumph as the progress that was made in the big bed today.










How Surface Everything Is



But the Archangel Mischal’s wisdom is older than the Cadets’, the ones who watch from a rim of cloud.

For an Archangel knows, all such embraces as will have gone forward this morning in that room on Earth are confusion; and were always called confusion; from earliest times confusion.

Even beauty confusion. And this love itself, confusion. None of these things is truth, nor are they justice, nor are they peace. Neither is the love of man truth or justice. In time’s extreme fullness, beauty will fall away unheeded, and even the embrace of man, fall away unheeded.

For why was there an Afterlife at all?

Why was this hovering cumulo-nimbus city first accumulated, why the ten Choirs compiled above, why the heavy gateposts originally sunk deep in cloudbank, their harp-like gates of solid gold swung shut, or then swung open, behind the open reservation-book upon a lectern? It’s because beauty was always anguish. And mortal love was always anguish, and youth and appetite sharpest pain, all in its core pain, all in its core grief. The only foundation in any life in Earth would always be justice and truth. But justice and truth, they exist nowhere in Earth, and never did.

All fallen to dust already. All Terra Linda, all the Northgate Mall and the exit off 101, and the old Holiday Inn and the Dunkin’ Donuts and the Patio World, fallen to dust, and even the Gutstorbs’ back fence, and even Isobel Harkness’s smile and head-tilt, and Sheila Carmel’s olive skin and brown eyes and her full pale breasts, and the Pacific Heights mansion’s heavy oaken front door, all burst to dust, at first touch, at first sight, long since in oblivion. For life transpires in consciousness. Which exists outside Time. So it is, life abides in the Afterlife, and in the Afterlife alone – not in Earth’s spectacular blaze.

So a Guardian Angel’s work in Annals and Archives will always go on, and will surely always be needed, at least until the time comes when mortals no longer blunder in Earth. Across the editing-room workbench lies a wandering strip of film: the old heartsick Angel holds it up to the light. And there he sees, repeated in tiny frame after frame, the stilled picture of Virgil’s middle-aged father; his name is Ed; he’s sitting in a hot tub; it’s an early design of hot tub from a time before their widespread commercial manufacture, made of molded concrete, and the concrete was dyed a homemade Play-Doh green. Ed Sproehnle, alone in the hot tub, is wearing an old faded lavender T-shirt that advertises the 20th Annual Mill Valley Art Festival. Tears are standing in the old fellow’s eyes, his mouth is stretched by grief.

It will be useful later. It’s good. He drapes its celluloid loops on a hook.

The cans of newer film are in the near bins. There is a particular reel recording an afternoon in the dooryard of the cabin in the North Liberty woods . This is only a year and a half ago.

An editor’s motions at this workbench are habitual and foreshortened. Locking the reel on the spindle. Threading the film over the sprockets. Turning the crank, he sees Virgil.

It’s Virgil in a shirt whose buttons have been torn off. He’s in the forest of Sheila’s mountains, and he’s sitting on a tree stump outside Sheila’s cabin. One of the forensic investigators is still there. The other two have left. The remaining investigator still wears his white disposable gown – but his job is done here and he has pulled off his paper muzzle. He lowers the lid on his case of forensic equipment, consigning to darkness a row of teddy bears and plush animals, held to the inner lid by elastic straps.

Sheila has not come out to tell these law-enforcement people. Tell them what? That he took advantage of her. She could do that and Virgil at this point is willing to go along with whatever she feels is right, he’s going to stay right here, kept here either by guilt or by devotion, he isn’t making a distinction right now.

She’s in the cabin, still. For the past half hour, no sound has come from inside, no indication of her moving around.

Earlier, she could be heard making phone calls. She sounded calm. She’s so young. Her voice on the phone had tones of authority. She might have been telling lab assistants not to show up today, or contacting lawyers to arrange bail. Of course she might have been summoning other police, but nobody has arrived.

Since then, it’s been quiet inside. The old Angel in the dark room keeps the reel turning steady, watching Virgil onscreen as he sits unmoving on his tree stump on his sunken backbone. At this point he can’t stand up from the stump he’s sitting on, he’s that culpable. Everything feels, to him, open for revision. Literally everything. The afternoon is waning. At home Isobel will eventually be entitled to an explanation; but he has no explanation; he only knows he can’t leave the cabin, its open door.

A half hour ago he did move around. The other two forensics men were still on the scene, and he was feeling restless, explosively, and he stood up from his treestump and he went to the open door of the cabin. She was standing right there in the kitchen. She waited for him to speak.

He said, “Do you want…?”

Anything. She was standing in the center of the room wearing jeans and a shirt, barefoot, with her hair tied back, outfitted in a phone headset again, loitering by the files, office equipment, computers, all covered in transparent plastic wrap, long swaths of it are wound around everything – her own home a loading-dock. At this moment, the last of it was being evacuated, piece by piece, by the two men.

Her answer was, “I really do think you’d better go.”

She had already said that.

He said, “I know,” because he didn’t disagree.

She lifted a couple of fingers, and let them fall. A gesture he couldn’t interpret.

So he went back out. The two investigators were getting in their car and leaving, but the other government car was still there. Plus there was Virgil’s car. Her old Volvo had been put on a truck and taken away. He sat down on his tree stump again. Maybe he’ll have to call Isobel and lie to her, about engine trouble or something. At this point he’s been sitting on this stump for so long, he can’t stir, and he desecrates space wherever he moves.

The remaining forensic investigator, then, is finished. Having stepped out of the gown pooled at his feet, he wads it up. Virgil notices something he hadn’t seen before: a handgun rides in a holster in the man’s armpit. It makes sense. An investigator can’t predict what might happen. These are people who arrive in the aftermath of events. With teddy bears and pistols.

A shoulder holster’s strap has a plastic snap-buckle: Pinching it releases the whole thing, and he sheds it. With a jingle of keys, he gives Virgil a nod and climbs into his government vehicle.

Now he’ll be alone with her in this place, but still he can’t stand up. All too soon, the sound of the government car is gone down the driveway. And out onto the paved road. All too soon, it has receded down Lime Kiln Road – beneath the great peacefulness.

He does stand up – having thought about it long enough. But he has no place to go. His being alone here now changes everything, and seems to assign his body the job of exploring space.

Uphill is a stone hut, half-sunken in the slope, like a cellar. The door is made of old planks. Its gaps have been filled with insulation-foam from an aerosol can, stiff styrofoam-gobs that harden and then turn yellow and brown in the weather. Solar collector panels stand on the hut’s roof taking in energy. He opens the door. Inside, red digits glow: a read-out of the voltage in storage-cells. His eyes are slow to adjust to the dimness. On the wall is a chalkboard with a schedule of crops to be harvested, “timothy/buckwheat” and “Hopi B corn” and “Narragansett wheat.” The harvests are all for long-bygone dates, chalked up last year. A half-dozen wireless phones are recharging in cradles in a row, all with headsets. The phones must be for lab assistants at harvest time. Everybody here communicates by internet, bouncing remarks off the ether, while they inhabit these acres together. On the big square solar-electricity device, the three gem-lights are marked bilingually: Betrieb is “Operation”; Erdschluss is “Earth Fault”; and Störung is “Failure.” At the moment, “Betrieb/Operation” is the one that’s lit.

He moves on around the shed. He is peeking into old barn doors in the mountains, while, at the same time, he is a married man in San Francisco, and Aardent has been finally getting momentum and taking off. He is a dutiful husband who does love his wife, and maybe he doesn’t pronounce Modigliani, but he’s got a rather complete life. He’s got a lot invested there. Nevertheless, here in this place, his feet are in motion, over the pine-needle duff. The stone cellar’s window square is empty, lacking any glass or muntin or frame. Around back, its doorway has no door. Inside, lying on the dirt floor at the threshold is a raccoon’s severed head, its teeth bared. I remember thee, fellow-pilgrim. The room is empty but for a large butcherblock in the center, browned by many years’ old blood.

There’s the rest of it, beheaded, on the wall hanging by its tail.

Then Sheila is there.

In the doorway, she holds a viciously curved old knife. It’s as long as her forearm. From the steel’s dark mistiness, it must be sharp.

In her other hand is a plate with a sandwich. Alfalfa sprouts escape between bread slices.

She sets the sandwich on the open stone sill, rather than on the bloody butcherblock – and she offers the big knife, handle-out, which he accepts.

Then without lingering, or even applying her eyes anywhere near him, she leaves – having paused long enough to indicate that there are things she might say but won’t.

So it’s him and the raccoon, with the knife. A raccoon’s skinny shanks and ribs must furnish only small sections, shreds, some precious grease, so you get a little flavor and a little protein. White beans. Thyme and saffron.

He sets the blade down on the altar, and he does an untypical thing, because he’s so tired, he sits down. He kneels. Then on his hands and knees he rocks back to sit like a child on the straw-covered dirt, fine Sierra dust, milled by time’s mortar-and-pestle, in this shed where probably many other animals’ old blood has dried. There are heavy hooks on the ceiling. He has never been a man for tearfulness or little breakdowns, and this right now is not a time for clouded sloppy thinking, but rather alertness like a felon. A chance at a new beginning turns out to be everywhere, if you can only get in contact with the ground. And there’s always a bit of ground, wherever you are. He might not be emotional but he knows when he’s been lucky, and he knows when it’s undeserved. He knows he can trust her, she’s not calculating, she’s not a cynical or deceitful person, and also she’s a clear thinker, though she obviously can have a temper. It’s evident she has principles. It’s obvious. It’s the first thing he ever saw about her. The old Angel, unmoved in the dark, turns the reel with a steady grind, watching Virgil consider the individual straws of old grass under his knees, waiting to see him stand up again. Stand up and straighten up, and steady himself tall with a hand on the butcherblock as if it were a podium where he was about to deliver an address – and take in a big breath to stretch his own ribs, touch a wrist to both eyes, and unhook the carcass from its nail and lay it out on the butcherblock and start with the knife.



So it was that Virgil, in a world made by women, could go looking for a snack, in moral freedom in his Pacific Heights mansion, barefoot in the kitchen. He had been made good on, he’d been cashed-in at full value, by his two women all in bed collaborating, on the bright morning when he put off returning the realtor’s call.

The adjective cute was what seemed to sum up his entitlement, the two women’s shared adjective, not to be analyzed. There were never any objective attractions in himself, he was just very regular-looking, he was never handsome or tall, nor was he ever honestly brilliant. Though he was still in athletic-looking shape. It was true he could be funny. But he frequently made remarks that were easily ignored or unheard. Or demanded instant contradiction. All the while, some sort of charming horn or even antler seemed to stand sprouting between his eyes in his blind spot. Whatever cute was, he wasn’t going to analyze it but he wasn’t, either, going to restrain himself from keeping whatever-it-is on display. Wearing a discarded floral kimono from the bedroom, he had come down to the kitchen to find some kind of food that would supplement the meager tea-and-cabbage ration. The historical moment in Cliff House when the two women laughed together – today he’d arrived at that moment’s mysterious comeuppance. This felt like he was retired back to youth again, so he was even physically smaller, where he stood at the kitchen counter. During an hour in bed in the ministrations of two women he’d been stripped of all pretension, or complaint, or authority, or any old superpowers from boyhood, or any acquired saintliness, and now he was just himself in his kitchen doing the usual thing, snooping for food. He could be sure Guadalupe had gone out shopping (upstairs, he’d heard the station-wagon on the paving stones and Lupe’s special tromp on the gas pedal, headed out for groceries), so he was free to let the kimono hang open unbelted moving around downstairs. In the refrigerator’s topmost shelf, he snaked a hand in, to lift a chocolate brownie from beneath one of the waxed-paper pages Lupe used for covering leftovers.

This was the very same brownie he had scorned to touch, last night at dinner. Forty minutes remained until his scheduled lunch ration. He cheated so regularly, he was probably averaging almost three thousand calories a day sometimes, like anybody.

Anyway the brownie was a drug. Straight to the head. The profound color of these things conveys the depth of their pleasure. The sign he’d taped to the refrigerator door to frighten himself (“The average American icebox contains up to TWO POUNDS PER YEAR of potential Advanced Glycosylene End-Products”) had been well censored from his eyesight, during the crucial moment of pulling the fridge handle, entering the cold well-lit orderly world within, then actually stealing the fudgy cake. Closing the door, too, his eye dodged from the sign.

Now, as he looked out through the kitchen window and watched the slow evacuation of furniture from the Episcopal church across the alley, evil sugars were spilling into his bloodstream, eventually to turn to brittle caramel in all his cells. That’s how he imagined it. Like peanut brittle. Peanut brittle fastening on his cellular DNA and his collagen. Across the alley, two people were moving cardboard boxes from within the church’s back door. It looked like an older woman and her extremely old husband, too old to be hauling heavy things. His thoughts kept reverting to Isobel, how in bed her hands sculpt what she requires, and her beautiful dependable greed at the crisis when she always did have a way of drawing back, to be able to see and grip and prize the mess, but always detachedly, never letting herself fall in the swoon. Her permanent solitude, it was installed as a cramp through the days and the years. Always, at the side of her mouth, the lip corner delved in a habitual sarcasm. That little dimple of sarcasm had been deepening. And her chilled look lately – her stroking of her upper-arms to create warmth, even on a hot day. And, at her eyelid, the embedded blue thread. The blue thread was never there before, liability to the fair-skinned and the thin-skinned. She would never believe that blue thread was a delicate beauty.

The air was cold in the kitchen. What he’d put on, upstairs, was a silky kimono of Isobel’s with flowers on a black background.

His blue cashmere sweater was there on a kitchen chair, and he pulled it on over the robe, guarding the remaining half of the brownie in his cupped hand while he dove through the sweater. The appended source of all mischief – bloated, frosted, oversensitive, always dangerously reminiscent – was a tiresome thing to be protecting continually, to be tapped away again, behind panels of kimono silk, while his conscious attention went back to watching the old folks outside as they shuffled around at the back door of their church, moving boxes. Moving boxes out of the church-cellar’s darkness, out into the sun in the alley. According to Guadalupe (who talked with the whole neighborhood) the Episcopal church property had been on the market for years, and now at last had sold. To a developer, for commercial re-hab. The man in the alley was so elderly, the soles of his feet never quite lost contact with the ground as he went back and forth, sunlight irradiating his old scalp scabby and pink through well-combed white hair. Gerontology: that would be a career to mention to Sheila, as she cast about thinking of Stanford and Berkeley. She’d been talking about pre-med. Old people are such translucent babies. The care of old people’s dwindling, their laciness and evanescence while they sail into irrelevance, would be a strange and wonderful dedication in life – though of course gerontology feeds no benefits back to society’s future – so, as a place to plug in medical talent, it’s pretty much a dead-end for society’s assets. Not much return on investment. Precisely all the more strange-and-wonderful, then, and somehow mystical.

Soon only the last crumbs of brownie would cling, on fingers to be sucked. The particular problem that made him keep an eye on the project in the alley was a certain large empty cardboard box out there. It was a box of his own, which the old folks had included now in their pile. Virgil himself had left that box there – against the opposite building’s wall some days ago – because it seemed a good place to create a temporary recycling pile, while that property was rumored to be in escrow. Now the old couple had stacked it among their possessions and would transport it away with them, to some other church. The box wasn’t empty. He was pretty sure he’d left some old mail in there, including stockbrokers’ print-outs of his holdings. Which should have gone straight to the garbage can, or even the shredder.

So he knew he ought to go out and intervene. Take the box back.

And once you’ve admitted you ought to do something, you’re probably going to end up doing it. Yet first he would finish his forbidden brownie in peace and solitude. The scent on his hands wasn’t brownie alone. If he went out on errands today, he knew what would happen here on the home front. Isobel might spend another entire afternoon sequestered in her studio. If she and Sheila spent any time talking, they would be talking about him. But he never did want to know – that is, know whatever they might conclude, whenever they discussed the outward, material him: the Virgil that appeared in the world, the “actual” Virgil. Which they might pat into any shape they like. It’s what women do, and you just have to trust them. During a strange hour in bed this morning, they might have been two girls on a beach building a sandcastle, in their kneeling and in all their infinite rearrangements, brisk glance of connivance, patience, and even amusement, because unlike a man, they’re never quite so mindless about it, or at least not as he is. In a male, consummation’s big let-down is that it’s such a singularity. For the rest of this day, certain flashing pictures in his mind would menace. Female forms pouring through embraces, thoughts that would make it impossible to go outside decently in a kimono to intervene and prevent the old folks from carting away his trash.

The Chrysler minivan out there belonged to the old man, because he unlocked it, firing his key-fob button at it. He slid its side-door open, revealing an interior too small to contain all the boxes. The old fellow should have removed the passenger seats. They’re removable in all those vans. Already, too many boxes to fit inside there had accumulated. He picked up a box. Soon Virgil’s own carton would be loaded in with the rest.

He decided to let them take it. And himself stay inside with his gluttony and his satiety, his amorous smell, the African violet on the windowsill, the Tuffy pad Guadalupe prefers drying on the drainboard, the lovely green wheatgrass plot for his juicer on the countertop. Let the old folks deal with it, bring it home, or to their next church or wherever, and discover it’s full of trash. Let them recycle it. They’re churchy people, they’ll ignore the statements from his broker in there.

Nevertheless he was pulling on his seersucker jacket – from the coat hanger in the closet – because he wasn’t so ungallant as to let old retired people cart off his trash. Leaving the printouts in there would be stupid. The jacket hung low enough, there’d be no risk of indecency, he would just look eccentric. The kimono emerged from under the sweater and formed a skirt. Topped by a man’s seersucker jacket. He made his appearance, then, outside his own back door in a costume entitling him to a kind of authority in the neighborhood, and he said, “Hi there,” in the broad beautiful acoustics of the alleyway, addressing the members of the older generation, the lower-property-values generation in retreat. “Moving out your last few things?”

The gate to his place was still fractured at the gatepost. It had been damaged by the lumber yard’s forklift delivering a pallet of new Masonite. The lumber deliveries were an oddity he might have to explain to his back-door neighbors: the constant replenishment of Isobel’s plywood-and-Masonite stack, under a blue tarp by the garage.

“Good morning,” said the man, a Robert Frost, or a Carl Sandburg, for he had a classy old poet’s rumbly tone, burden of eyebrows, a way of coming to focus as if everything involved deliberation. This was, to Virgil, the very image of fatherliness. Standing in the church’s cellar door, the old man explained, “The new tenants,” while one old hand rose to caress the building’s cement wall. “They have a crew coming. We need to be out of their way.” A New England accent was consonant with the old-poet persona.

“Ah!” Virgil said. ‘Tenants’!”

– Maybe the building hadn’t changed hands, after all. Maybe the Episcopal Church decided to take it off the market and just rent it out.

“Yes, the first tenants will be an exercise gym. One of those places with weights and treadmills. Construction crew coming today.”

“Convenient for me, then. An exercise gym! I can just go across the alley.” Venturing out, he buttoned his seersucker jacket, making a slight cough as a form of courtesy: it was one of his ways of putting people at ease, by a little display of personal feebleness. An encroaching fact of life, as you get older: when you cough, you can hear your own father.

“No, sir,” said the man. “Gym for women only. Kind-of-place. So I’m told. But they’re only going to be here for a year or two. It’s a short-term lease. The new owners are the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It’s going to be a music school. Part of the campus.”

Virgil came across the alley for the box, “I thought I’d get this out of your way. This is my old box I left here.”

He was glad he’d come out, for not only is warm sun always a good thing, but the gentleman was short of breath, and you have to pity the lower-property-values generation being displaced here by squads of exercise machines. He set his hand on the computer box, its telltale logo of a bitten Macintosh apple evidencing what a typical up-to-date consumer he was, and started to explain (all the while wearing the neighborhood-shaman costume) that he’d meant to flatten it for recycling, and since the premises across the alley had seemed unoccupied…

“While I’ve got you…,” said the old man. He was sizing Virgil up, then he turned and disappeared. Into the cold dark six-foot rectangle.

Meaning Virgil should follow.

So he girded his loins, that is, pulled the sweater down better, and went into the cellar. It wasn’t a cellar at all. It was the floor of the church sanctuary, frigid, dim, with cold embers of stained-glass. The pews had all been removed and stacked against a side wall, exposing a flagstone floor with one runner-strip of carpet up the center. Overhead tall groins of plaster rose to a heavenly twilight ceiling that enclosed the echoing acoustics of a bus station.

But a defunct bus station. From which the last buses have departed. No more of arrivals and departures, not in this place. “I need you to help me move this,” said the old man, heading for a pile of cartons and furniture. He called over his shoulder, “Hi Gloria. I got a friend.”

The woman was onstage visible in a side-doorway – it was probably a priest’s dressing-room, off the raised stage where the weekly show would have taken place, magical shuffling of goblets and plates on a tabletop, swaying of huge sleeves. The old man told her, “This is our neighbor. He’s going to help me move it.” Introductions were made. The woman was Gloria Wang. He was Dick Cruz. “We’re the last ones taking out the old things.”

Virgil, in return, spoke his own given name in the huge space, while he turned, to see what he might be asked to help move. The stacks in the shadows by the door condensed into a collection of junk, computer keyboards, stacks of uniform-bound books, desk lectern, minor furniture, as well as a half-dozen jugs of Mondavi “California Cabernet” which, he realized with delight, would have been what they used! On Sundays for their little individual doses! They used the big twelve-dollar jugs of supermarket stuff, of course, it’s perfectly good. There was a wire rack of pamphlets from the outer lobby. There was a folded linen cloth, like something they must drape over the altar, and a few ceremonial priest-gowns with all their braid and their crusty metallic embroidery looking burdensome, a pair of candelabra, and, surmounting the pile of fabric, an oversized Bible, huge, big as a coffee cake, upholstered in white vinyl padding. He was reminded of his mother’s churchgoing phase, in her decline. She had a Bible that was almost as super-deluxe.

“So here we are,” said the old man. This  was the heavy thing he would be asked to move. Clearly, in the weekly rites onstage, it had been the central object, a long altar-table with just the dimensions of a coffin, laid on trestles.

He went over. On top were a few small cartons with pasted labels:




Gary Liturgical Supply, East Chicago, Indiana.


“Is this it?” he said. The table looked heavy. He moved aside the boxes of wafers, so he could try lifting one end and hefting it.

“Well, no, that we throw out, it’ll be getting moldy,” said Mr. Cruz, in a misunderstanding. He was talking about the communion wafers.

Mrs. Wang called, “May we use your trashcans for a few things?” She was coming out of the side room with a pair of candlesticks. She wore floral stretchpants and an elastic shirt which did nothing to hide the rhinocerosity of a certain stage of life, and Virgil was finding himself oddly soothed, in this unpretentious, comfy demographic-in-decline, existing right across the alley from himself. “They canceled our garbage-pickup.”

“Of course, by all means, use my trashcans.” Seeing her from his kitchen window, he hadn’t noticed she was Chinese because her hair-do was dyed a Caucasian hard orange.

The old gentleman said, “And maybe we could just store a few things on your side. Just till tomorrow. It won’t rain.”

It no doubt would rain. But he said, “I’d be happy to keep some things for you.”

The truth was, he had decided, inhospitably, selfishly, that he would get all this out of here. Today. Somehow by hook or by crook he would make it all fit in their car. He didn’t want it in his garage, or even outside under the eave in the alley. Whether it was furniture or books or their sacred props, whatever it might be, he didn’t want to be responsible for it. It might even be valuable. If necessary, things could be strapped to the top of their van. Like the big altar-table coffin. It was lucky for them he’d arrived, because these two people were not thinking efficiently about their load.

“First let’s make two piles.”

Plenty here could be trashed. One of the boxes’ flaps was open revealing pamphlet things – “The Celebration of Epiphany, January Sixth, 1967” – showing hymnal song numbers that pertained only to one day in 1967, a day that will never come again in history. Nor ever have any consequence in the world anymore. In January of 1967, he himself had been alive for about one year, but it was miles from here, across the Bay, unaffected by the plop of this pebble in this little pond, on a Sunday remembered by nobody.

The reverse page announced youth group meetings and a food drive and a coffee hour, and an intention to start a weekly Bible study, and the inevitable pot-luck where people were assigned to bring dishes according to their positions in the alphabet: A-J salad/dessert. Once decades ago, in college, he’d gone to a church service for some reason, and his main feeling was But anybody can get in here, as he glanced around at the parishioners in their pews, most of them like, basically, patients in a waiting room, the discount glasses-frames, the plastic-based fabrics, all the downmarket consumer choices, the dyed stiff hair, the white patent leather for high-self-esteem types. In the end, it’s that same random-mix demographic you can’t avoid, all with our different individual body-weight issues, our style choices; you have to meet them in the retirement home – or on a public bus – or seated around you in your section of an airplane – the random socio-economic mix of faces that, in some versions of a life-after-death, will end up on the same cloud together, the mix of mugs from a first-grade schoolroom photo, the schoolroom including all, including the swift and the not-so-swift, the quiet one and the noisy one, the homely one and the vain one, all getting pretty much the same reward in the end, the naughty one along with the completely guileless one, the one who insists on being special along with the one who is just as happy not to be noticed, each at snack-time finally holding up his little cup, to be filled. That’s religion for you. In Mrs. Deercoop’s kindergarten class, thirty-some years ago in the temporary-classroom buildings on Terra Linda’s sunny slope, it was a cup of apple juice each child expected, and received. As well as a Salerno Butter Cookie. When Mrs. Deercoop passed down the line with her box of cookies, each child’s job was to hold up a forefinger, because each Salerno Butter Cookie was molded in a wreath-shape with a central hole, to be hung on a small worming finger. Cookie-and-juice always happened at an hour when the sun of Terra Linda – the lower-middle-class, therefore hotter, sun of that freeway-exit valley – made blazing squares on Mrs. Deercoop’s floor before the shelves of puzzles and blocks under the windows. The baking of the classroom released a heady smell from the open box of Salerno Butter Cookies as she made her way along the row of upraised fingers and impaled a cookie – no, two cookies, everybody got two – on each finger. When his own mother, in her later years, joined a church, it was a late-emerging stain, soaking through, of his own ancestral extraction. Not only was it downmarket of her, it was also a form of desertion, an abandonment of him, her own son. The allure of its “fellowship” – and the weak-minded wishful thinking – turned a normal human being, his mother, into a calm stranger with a light of self-salvation in her eye – or so she tried to be – because maybe honestly, over the years, she had been driven a little bit to mental incompetence, simply by life’s wear and tear – the lazy husband and then the divorce, working her way up through the Bank of America, the cosmetic surgery, and putting him through college, but especially the earlier years, the years of embarrassment and actual cheap poverty, when Virgil’s father was still around the house. In the end in life, you become a joiner just because, the evidence is, you get mentally tired. You lose your critical or skeptical abilities.

The old man there, Mr. Cruz, spoke Virgil’s name.

So, he came back to consciousness and put away the Celebration of Epiphany programmes.

“Are these garbage?” he said, starting with the cartons of wafers, at such risk of getting moldy. He began stacking them along one arm. “We needn’t bother with making a garbage pile. It can go straight in the can. I’ll drag one of my cans over on this side.”

“It’s awfully nice of you,” said Mrs. Wang with some curious dismay. She was watching him go out the door. “To help us out.”

Well, his personal and, admittedly, selfish motive was to defend his own garage from their furniture. Somehow he would even get the big altar table in the van. Or strap it on top. The alleyway sun was going to cause him to sweat this morning. He who had been the hostage of two women in bed might have been wise to take a shower before coming out here, penis dried tacky and clanging on his thigh. He crossed to his cans and dumped his armload of boxes. A thud on the floor of the can. Then he took off the seersucker jacket and hooked it on the rear-view mirror of Sheila’s car.

There was his own cardboard “Apple” box to be flattened.

Inside it was the envelope from his broker with his portfolio data.

Which he tore in a few little pieces and dropped in the metal can. Along with cardboard fins for shipping-cushioning. Also, a small flattened little carton that said Inside it were linked, transparent pillows of air. At the bottom was a bunch of styrofoam peanuts sloshing around. He picked up the box and tipped it above the trash can, to pour the styrofoam bits out into the can. But they wouldn’t go down, the whole swarm of bits exploded, they were driven upward by a wind within the can, and they stuck all over his sweater. His blue cashmere sweater was the thing the styrofoam bits had been longing for, in their captivity, and now they sought it and clung, each with its silent electrical hum. He put down the box. He held out his arms like a man sopping wet.

The only thing to do was to start separating them, one by one, from the wool. After he had divorced one little white styrofoam peanut from off his chest, it hung on his fingertips, so no matter how he wrung his hands over the can, each bit stayed stuck to his skin-surface, on his wrist, his palm, his knuckle, like a hornet, it kept its tangency. He couldn’t shake them off.

“Looks like you’ve got a little-old electrostatic problem.” Mr. Cruz said, from the church doorway.

“Yeah, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

If he threw his hands down hard at the floor of the trash can, he could whip off the bits. He swept his hands across his chest, to wipe off a dozen at a time. Then came more arm-flinging, until his elbow-joints hurt. By the time he had gotten most of them off, Mr. Cruz and Mrs. Wang had made many visits to his trash cans, dropping armfuls. “…’Preciate this,” said Mrs. Wang, as she let another box of old pamphlets go down the cylinder. Meanwhile Virgil went on working, picking off every white crumb, each with its silent high-frequency resonance.

Really, on the whole, this was a day where he couldn’t be happier. At last maybe Isobel, with patience, and with the constant pressure of love, could someday start to relax. Today was the day he’d allowed himself to play like a child on the greatest seashore. It was also the day he had told himself to sell Aardent. Aardent had had some good periods, yet always he felt like the only PR man in history who didn’t love parties, who didn’t love crossing the room to greet people, who didn’t love flirtation and the precipice of cruelty. On a day like today, ordinarily right now he would be at his desk again, lifting again the same old publicity kits off the shelf, or bending to gather the mail from the floor, frankly dreading the armload of slippery new magazines, such a weighty pile every day, slick four-color stock, way too many pages per magazine, all filled with this month’s disposable fads, twenty-something kids’ versions of what was urgent. There’s no more news in the world; there’s nothing new; instead it’s rewarding to watch what people consider“news,” as, in their stages on life’s way, humans progress through the market segments, in the company of their cohort, their aging kindergarten class. Abandoning Aardent, he wouldn’t have to draft strategies anymore, or make small talk on the phone with editors, or puzzle over an ad layout’s limited rectangle. Or ever again advance the fortunes of his one bottled-water company, his two stand-up comedians, his one professional clown with the impossible-to-position name of “Wankers,” the occasional authors of self-help enlightenment books, with their big unpleasant egos, the 8-by-10 glossy photos of actors, gerbil-faced or fox-faced, and the one marketer of nutritional supplements. And of course the Dominy Dam account.

That was it. That was Aardent’s client roster, after sixteen years, the roster of a business that, honestly, had never been run with a lot of passion.

All that time, he’d thought he was passionate. He himself named it Aardent. That meant something, at the time. He would continue with the Dominy Dam campaign until it had run its course. He owed it to Sabin Hansen. And he owed it to Sheila because her father was still mixed up in it. The account required attention now mostly in the form of publicity-suppression. Which, anyway, he farmed out to a specialist. Also, SuperFemme Biotics, those charlatans, would want a booth for the trade-show season in April.

He was entirely free of white styrofoam peanuts when he went back inside the cold church. The two old folks had done a lot of sorting and loading. Their pile was simpler now.

Virgil gathered up the heap of priest’s vestments in a single armload. Inside the car, he could see that the altar table couldn’t possibly fit. So it would definitely go on top.

He came back inside. In its traditional dimensions, it combined a sarcophagus with a dinner table. It had no table-legs, so it lay across a pair of carpenter’s sawhorses. Beautiful lustrous wood.

He asked, “I guess it goes to some other church?”

Mr. Cruz said, “You can have it if you want. ’Fraid we can’t use it in the Music Conservatory.”

Virgil held his tongue. The past fifteen minutes would have to be re-woven in his memory. He had misunderstood. These people weren’t church people, not at all; they were from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They were clearing the place out for their new tenant, the women’s gym. Somehow, hadn’t they implied? – Virgil had reached the conclusion, anyway – that they were with the church.

Of the gift of an altar table, Virgil said, “No thanks. I don’t really see a use for it.”

Mr. Cruz found that response mildly amusing. “I guess it isn’t the kind of thing you can chop up for stovewood.”

This would be a stand-off. The stronger-willed would be able to foist the thing off on the other.

“I’ve got some rope,” Virgil said. “I can find an old blanket to protect the top of your car.” He went to look in his garage.

It was their sacramental furniture, not his, they’d bought the building, so they could clean it out. Mr. Cruz would back off. He would get the point. Such civil encounters are the basis of all good society. Besides, Virgil was already crossing the alley to fetch a ratty old blanket, for the top of the van, and a length of rope in the garage. The van did have a roof rack. His garage shelf contained a few bungee cords – but he had the perfect thing – a left-over length of nylon cord.

Which Mr. Cruz could keep. And keep the blanket too. He tossed it like a shawl over the top of the gold-colored minivan. Mr. Cruz was watching him, with admiration in defeat, from the doorway that led down into the sanctuary. He went back inside and Virgil followed – so each could take up his own end. It wasn’t heavy at all. They hoisted it easily, it felt empty, it was just a box, and they lifted it to the height of their shoulders – and they floated the thing up the few stairs, out into the sun. And it did slide nicely atop the van, and it was easy to lash it down to the roof-rails with the nylon rope. And he and Mr. Cruz, after the exchange of a few pleasantries, turned to their opposite doorways – to conclude, and then forget, their short, nicely inconsequential friendship in the alley.










Such Civil Encounters Are the Basis of All Good Society



The altar table, atop the minivan, moves east on Union. Then it turns onto Gough and gets slowed down in the intersection. It’s stuck. Viewed from high up in Guardians’ Orders, it’s a clot in the street map, snagging at the corner and then popping free. Eventually to climb over the hill. And vanish for good.

Churches to be deconsecrated. Prisons to be gradually depopulated. Electric chairs to be severed from hard-wired cables, unbolted from their floors, thrown on the back of junk trucks. Entire armies of men to be freed from uniforms, relieved of their weapons, to fade back into the cities and the farms and villages. Locally in this Pacific Heights mansion, Virgil will never have had anything to forgive himself for. And then somehow live on forever, bodily. Without death or infirmity.

She looks down on Virgil’s alley. From on high, the Episcopal church’s sanctuary floor, stripped of its pews and its equipment, looks merely like the floor of a cistern now. It tells no tales. Like the floor of an old interrogation-chamber not visibly stained or nicked or pocked by violence, it’s an ordinary floor. It might always have been just that. An ordinary floor.

She can hear Boaz approaching the office at a run. Boaz never runs. It sounds like a lopsided gallop, and he bursts through the open doorway in an exhausted whirling waltz, and he stops, and looks at Hokhma with startled horror as if she were an intruder, looks around the Office, and then looks at her again, and he confesses, “I followed Mischal.”

He is like a terrified child. His head is topped by one of the new foil haloes mounted on a hair clip. But it’s been knocked slant.

“What’s wrong?”

“I followed him. I followed Mischal down.”

She has never seen the whites of his eyes. He’s like a child.

“You followed him…?”

“This isn’t what it seems. What he does.”

“What isn’t?”

His hands lift up emptiness, then they drop. He turns away.

“Boaz, get your breath.” One never sees Boaz without his poise. “Stop moving around and sit down.”

“I really cannot tell you. Actually, the whole thing is – actually – impossible. Though, ha, it’s obvious.”

“What’s obvious? Just tell me.”

“I’m saying I can’t tell you.”

But then, in a single sentence, he does tell her, and Hokhma suggests immediately, by way of crossing it out, that it might have been a dream. Or a wrong angle of vision or something. He could be mistaken.

He does sit down – in his chair at the table – looking as if he wished she were right, that it could be a mistake somehow.

She says, “Well, it couldn’t happen according to metaphysics.”

It’s both illogical and sickening. It’s strange work for an Archangel. Even to conceive of it! The Archangel would have to have been depraved all along, malignant potentially all along.

Boaz says, “That Dispensation: you remember, you read it.”

He still hasn’t got his wind back. He forces one big breath in his lungs, sitting there.

“Can you take me? And show me?” She asks. But she doesn’t want to be brought there. She doesn’t need to see.

“We’ve been existing with him here—” Boaz checks the open doorway behind him, “Where is he now?”

“He’s in the darkroom. Or he was.”

“I saw him coming up. He came up.”

“I saw him go in the darkroom. Can you take me?” she asks again, because probably one does need to be brave now. One needs to be loyal to the truth.

If this is the truth, she and Boaz might be the only ones who know. Who else might know? Because apparently this is something Mischal has been doing entirely in secret, feasting on the body.

Boaz is sitting oddly knock-kneed staring at the floor. He shrugs, in order to put off a shudder. Hokhma decides (reversing herself again) probably she doesn’t need to go down and witness the scene itself. She’ll take Boaz’s word. He couldn’t possibly fabricate such a thing, nobody could, she doesn’t need to look at it. At whatever so far remains.

“Boaz, if that can happen – ” her arms swirl up, indicating the whole universe. It’s a tilting gesture; or even a dumping gesture.

How to even begin contemplating it. It’s impossible.

She points out, “Think about it. God can’t even take physical form. It’s not ‘God.’”

The Archangel himself has been furtively traveling down, to kneel, to open his mouth. If this is supposed to be a form of “restitution,” or “recompense,” it’s an insane method.

“Well, I think he’s in the darkroom,” she says again.

They look at each other.

With a sigh Boaz gets up and leads the way – down the corridor.

He must be inside there. The red “IN USE” tab shows in the slot above the door handle.

They listen, then edge a little closer. Nothing can be heard from inside. Boaz’s handsome profile – his profound forehead – hovers near the door, the brow that seems always to be scowling, the jaw always perfectly shaved. It’s the profile of her assigned partner in eternity.

Still there is no sound from inside the darkroom.

By a glance they agree to go back to the Office.

But in the Office, oh, the Cadets can’t sit down, or speak, or do much of anything here anymore. Together, they might be the last lamp, the last knowledge – that’s how this feels. Who else will know about an Archangel’s activities? Will the highest echelons know? For example, the Counsels where the New Dispensation was crafted, isn’t it plain that they must know there?

Cadets have no capacity for thinking about it. Nobody does. Or ever should. In her flesh is nausea’s clammy fever as her soul touches down on the actual floor of hopelessness, hopelessness even here, in what was always Paradise. And she whines out as if maybe this were a kind of happy, or saving interpretation, “We don’t have to understand anything, Boaz. We never understood anything. Nobody does. Not on Earth. And certainly not us since we got here, either.” She swings a hand out, toward everything’s implausibility – the improbable, totally implausible refrigerator standing right there, the cottony cloud itself, which holds them up, rather than letting them fall through, just as, when they were mortals, the soil or rocks in Earth were made of something, which held up the soles of their feet – dirt and molecules and things. Quarks.

“We don’t have to even think we understand, Boaz. Who knows what ‘understanding’ is? ‘Understanding’ isn’t anything. We already never did understand anything.”

Together they look down at the San Francisco hilltop house.

Virgil – showered and dressed already, completely carefree now in eternity – is trotting down the house’s carpeted main staircase, sock-footed. His loafers are in the front hall, and while he slips into them, he shouts a goodbye to his family scattered through the house – “I’m going out! See ya!” – a typical Virgil Sproehnle farewell, measly, remote, he’s still so shy about the good thing that happened among the three of them that morning in their bedroom. Now he thinks he’s going to go out to do some good in the world. Arrange finances. Get a couple of legal facts about his father’s past. Maybe buy a banjo. The best banjo in San Francisco.

Comfortably shod, he emerges from the front door. He’s a man striding on his own driveway, a free man in the sunshine. As far as he’s concerned, an immortality always did feel like an average entitlement, somehow simply built-in, if never thought of. An immortality built into every instant – as he goes to the car – mortal body in motion, the glint of car keys in hand: ease and grace. Clearly (and evidently!) all this is still possible even where the Creator and Sustainer of all things has been the one singled out to be excruciated alone, moreover to be annihilated, apparently to be broken down even intestinally and to be transformed by enzyme, by acid, by bile. At last doubtless anally thence to be egested.



For such reasons, sometimes in the darkroom, at the editing table the Archangel can be clinging at the edge like a swimmer. More and more, the entire midsection area can feel somehow bulging or somehow sprained, so it can be necessary for an Angel to support himself on elbows, spider-like, on chair-arms and the table. His only recurrent sure knowledge is of his own frail incompetence, that’s his only investment now, and that’s his strategy: a sick sorriness, a sorriness that jackets even his sleep in a cold sweat, incompetence and sorriness foredestined.

And incompetence as Guardian, too. For his mortal man, the man from Robinsong Lane, is not prepared to enter eternity.[29] Here in the editing room are the existing materials of Virgil Sproehnle, seeming so scant, the important elements that make a life (the smell of old Crayola stubs in a shoebox, the coolness of a schoolroom desktop under a forearm, at bedtime the cold of a mother’s Noxema mask, a rainy day once outside the back door smelling of earthworms, the rhythmic creak-and-snap of the swing set his father built out of scrap two-by-fours, the sound of a lawnmower down the street that once defined the extent of the whole world’s dome) all universal History here in one dark room in the Afterlife. The Angel backs up the reel to the beginning. He flips the switch on the sprocket drive, then raises himself on his elbows, to negotiate a lower position in the editor’s chair arranging his whole incalculable being, all his sickness, an endless landscape of sickness, fantastic irrelevant sickness. Light up a cigarette. It might calm the stomach. On the screen, an old Terra Linda classroom flickers to light.

The view is of Virgil in grade school, wearing a plaid flannel shirt he used to like, and dungarees. The air everywhere in that school always smelled like it was coming from from the gym area. Somewhere is a lunch bag, which the boy will toss in a trashcan unopened (its banana, its sandwich). Somewhere, too, is a band instrument he is guilty of not having rehearsed: a rented clarinet. Already now the world is scented by girls, their infuriating self-sufficiency. This particular day was a day Virgil never forgave his father for. He’s fourteen, and he’s sitting at a desk with a square of paper taped to its corner where his name is printed, “VIRGIL S,” in exemplary block letters.

He didn’t do his project. And he’s out of excuses. He was supposed to build a scale model of the Vietnam Memorial.

Mrs. Brane last Friday brought in a big piece of cardboard, as large as a tabletop, painted grass-green, which was supposed to represent the National Mall in Washington but bare of monuments. Everybody is assigned a monument. Out of the art supply closet has come Mrs. Brane’s jar of snotty cement, spreadable with a brush on the inner lid. Each miniature monument will be stuck in place on the green cardboard. One has brought in a Lincoln Memorial, with a small Abraham Lincoln enthroned inside. Another has made a tall spike for the Washington Monument out of white shirt-cardboard. Another a long Reflecting Pool from Saran Wrap. Virgil has brought nothing.

His other problem is, his own father has appeared. He’s in the classroom doorway. It’s the famous limping Ed Sproehnle of the Terra Linda sidewalks.

Nobody warned him. He had no idea. If his father still lived at home, he would have been in better communication. He knew “Celebrity Dad” appearances were scheduled all this week but no one told him today was Sproehnle Day. Tim Lyons’s father works in a pet hospital and brought in a live raccoon, and Jessica Stoltz’s dad is an EMT, and Hannah Cohen’s dad is a college professor, but his father isn’t anything, his father has been living across town sleeping, the rumor is, in one of those places with a roll-down metal door. And a cement floor. How did they contact him? Probably through his employers at the Dump.

Because there he is, smiling in the classroom doorway, wearing his green pants and green shirt from the Dump, petting his nerve-damaged hand. He’s here today because he’s an army veteran, and Virgil at last makes the connection: the Vietnam Memorial was his assignment.

Mrs. Brane says, “How wonderful!” with a kind of discomfort she likes to fake. “Virgil, I see your father is here. Gentlemen and ladies, this is Virgil’s father. Come on in, Virgil’s father. Virgil’s father was a soldier!”

At the doorway the man bobbles in sheepish gratitude on springy legs that stay so lively from scrambling over trash heaps rescuing things. Everybody has turned to look at him, blandly according him respect, not knowing yet.

“Come in, Mr. Sproehnle. Welcome. We’re glad you could come. Virgil? Would you please go to the shelf and get your model? We can find a place for it right now in the National Mall, now that Mr. Sproehnle is here. Come on in, Mr. Sproehnle. Don’t be reticent,” she adds, with emphasis, because she’s using a vocabulary word. She looks so triumphant because she knows there’s no model of Virgil’s on the shelf. She’s the teacher. She of course knows. She can see the shelves.

“So Virgil? Would you?”

He does actually stand up. And actually goes to the shelves. As if he might find it. Some of the other models show a lot of work. The model of the Lincoln Memorial is a beautiful thing, made of white modeling clay upon a trimmed shoebox, the joint project of Hannah, Annette, and Cynthia. Beside it is the statue of the Iwo Jima flag-raising for Arlington Cemetery, the work of Marcus Thomas. Marcus cheated, he used a store-bought paperweight model, and he mounted it on a pedestal made from chocolate-milk cartons. You can see the name Nestlé through its whitewash. The Jefferson Memorial – also the product of girls’ collaboration, with the help, too, of a father at his tool bench – is made from a round cake mold and wooden dowels, all spray-painted white. It’s radiant. All this week he didn’t even bother looking up “Vietnam Memorial” to get an idea of it. He just knows it’s a hole in the ground with no statue. He spent last night watching TV, eating an entire family-size bag of caramel-coated popcorn.

So – taking his hands out of his pockets – he turns and faces the teacher and he pulls himself inside-out telling her, “I didn’t do mine” – because poverty is the form of wealth he has an infinite inexhaustible amount of.

Mrs. Brane looks satisfied now. “You had all Sat-ur-day and Sun-day,” she says, and she adds, in the same melody, “And everybody else did the-irs.”

She lets that sink in. She’s smiling in pain. “Would you like to, at least, tell us about it?”

“No,” he says flatly. He elaborates further, “I didn’t look it up.”

Virgil’s father speaks, stepping forward, “I’m to blame for that. The encyclopedia we got is a 1960 edition, and for most things it’s perfectly good,” the phrase perfectly good making its debut here in public, the Sproehnle family motto.

Mrs. Brane smiles. “What we’re supposed to have, Mr. Sproehnle, is a complete scale model of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.”

She turns to her cardboard, its lawns’ green mopped about in brushstrokes of her tempera paints. The Capitol Building at one end is already glued in place: it’s an accurate model she herself purchased, on a visit to our nation’s capital. Over the rest of the field, spots are marked in pencil. The Washington Monument has already been installed. Its white spike is made of four long pickets of shirt-cardboard bound together in Scotch tape. And the Reflecting Pool is in place. The empty area for Virgil’s nonexistent Vietnam Memorial is at the bottom, next to the spot reserved for the Lincoln Memorial.

“But now that you’re here, Mr. Sproehnle, why don’t you tell us about it? You’ll be a resource for us. People? Virgil’s father served in our country’s armed forces, so Mr. Sproehnle, would you please enlighten us about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington?”

Virgil’s father makes one of his grins of regret. “Sorry, ma’am, I don’t have much to say about that.”

“About the Vietnam Memorial? In Washington, D.C.?” She’s shocked.

He smiles and he ducks his head. Meaning, I already apologized.

“It’s famous! It’s underground! Isn’t it, ladies and gentlemen? It’s all black, and it was designed by a young woman. Wasn’t it. Who happens to be Oriental, too! The Vietnam Memorial is an artwork to heal the tragedy of war. Something we now all know, now, is that no war ever has any good effects. Instead, when we disagree, certain people resort to violence, while we ought to use diplomacy and talk things over, because wars never make anything better.”

His father then does look at Mrs. Brane for a glance.

Virgil despairs. He knows his father, and he can see, what everyone else in the room may now begin to see, that his father accepts ideas into his world like gnats troubling the eyes. They won’t know that, in his cheerful stubbornness, he is actually standing there trying to think of wars that had some kind of good outcome. That’s what’s on his face.

“Oh,” says Mrs. Brane. She too will have noticed that the visitor is thinking. Which is a form of insubordination, and she uses her special tone to guide him back, “Of course, you served in the armed forces. And we all want to thank you for your service.”

It seems to let him off the hook. He might have been on the brink of talking about good wars. “Anyway here’s what I’ll do.” He mobilizes himself to go to the front of the room, and Mrs. Brane backs away. “Why don’t I just show the kids about the Vietnam Memorial?” A quick rub at his pocket produces the knife he carries everywhere. He always did carry that wooden-handled collapsible knife, never without it, old junk, its handle a cylinder of painted softwood, slotted to cover the folded blade, with a brass collar at one end which slid loose, or else tight, to free the blade or lock it. The paint had been rubbed off its ends by the many years’ denim pockets. “…’Cause you’re right,” he admits, in one of his imitations of amazement, while pulling open the blade, “The thing is underground, all right. And they did get a Chinese,” he adds, sounding explicitly racist.

The first glee has begun to shine in the eye of Cynthia Weaver, the malicious A-plus student. And also her little friend Jessica. But Jessica can keep her poker face better.

“So we’ll just go like this.” He reverses the knife in his fist, homicidal-maniac-style, to stab the green surface at the Vietnam Memorial spot, tilting the whole Mall up from the desktop. “Uh-oh,” he remarks, because now he’s knocked down the Washington Monument. On a hinge of Scotch tape, the white obelisk falls over. Everybody can all see his bare ankles. His old businessman shoes.

“Dylan?” says Mrs. Brane. “Would you please go? To Mr. Bendermeister’s office and tell him to come?”

“Oh, we’ll fix this, ma’am.”

“Mr. Sproehnle, we don’t allow knives in school.”

Dylan Creighton is already gone. He was spring-loaded. His gym shoes can be heard sprinting up the hallway in delight. “Just a minute,” his father says, stabbing and sawing, excavating for the Memorial. “It’s true, they did put it down below-grade,” he marvels, with an evident, slight dismay. He concludes, while he keeps sawing, “Well, I don’t know anything about art.”

The Weaver girl covers her mouth. With shining eyes, she elaborately clears her throat.

– The last tail of film slips off the sprocket wheel. The screen blazes white. It’s as far as Mischal got.

The liberated take-up reel speeds up, and its loose filmstrip goes on whipping the tabletop on auto-drive. Mischal can’t lift himself to stop it. He sits there watching the reel spin, the tail slapping the table. The hernia sensation keeps spilling out harder and riper, pain is so comical, so mechanical, within the larger ongoing vast joke, joke from time immemorial.

Which now has been named, openly, just an old “misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile a Guardian can keep working through the slit of consciousness that remains. For soon the promised mythological event will come to pass. Undistinguished Virgil Sproehnle can be one of those who will enter eternity untroubled.

For an end was folded into the beginning. Eternity was always there, even for mortals in Earth, it was always inescapable, eternity present immediately before the face, and about the ears, everywhere, it floods the unguarded eye, it seeps between the fingers, it rushes to fill the mouth that opens, it delves in the inner ear. A mortal’s only protection from eternity has been a constant chain of words, words in the mind, always words, passing like beads, one-by-one to be pinched. Soon presumably words, too, in a final, unimaginable universal peace – even words! – will come to an end.










Modigliani Modigliani Modigliani Modigliani Modigliani Modigliani



In such a manner, meanwhile, events in Earth will have kept succeeding each other in chronological order. And Virgil had come to stand before the Information counter at the Oakland VA, to resolve the – really trivial – question of his father’s birthplace, and so provide his infant son with a legal identity. It was the kind of minor bureacratic omission that, if ignored, can cause worlds of trouble. But which should be easy to fix, in this Northern California society so intelligently laid out for the convenience and prosperity of its citizens. When you come over the Bay Bridge and alight on the surface of Oakland, the new-built exit ramp sets you down like a jet airplane alongside Greater Grand Avenue, to merge there with the slower traffic exactly in the neighborhood of the new Veterans Affairs building. It’s always polite, courteous traffic. There’s plenty of parking.

So Virgil, having exited his own home’s red brick driveway only moments before, has impressed himself as a magician of time and space arriving – (after the arc of the Bay Bridge, after the easy parking job, car keys still glinting in hand as he strode) – within the iodine shadows inside the old VA building, where the echoes in the train-station-like space sounded eternal, and he bellied up against the very tall counter, only to be thwarted there by a pale woman in the archival shade, who answered his inquiry after a long minute – tapping on her grimy computer keys, not ever once raising her face to take him in – “Your father isn’t here.”

He waited then, for some further clarification. Because surely that couldn’t be the entire story.

“He’s not here. He may have been ‘administrative-discharged.’ You’ll have to go around to Temporary Building B.”

“My father was decorated.”

He didn’t want to ask what administrative discharge was. Already again, he was ashamed for his father.

Nevertheless, while she key-tapped a little more, he stood his ground and even leaned on the counter in a friendly sort of way, because a certain kind of bureaucrat only needs to be shown you mean business. He was a taxpayer. He was, for that matter, a rich man. He was a real-estate developer with property in Artemisia County, and he was the father of a baby boy whose birth certificate needed one little box filled in. Also he was a man beloved by two women. That (weirdly irrelevant) fact, today, crowned him with an unease known only to kings and potentates. In that house, things now would evolve somehow. In the triangle of this relationship, Isobel might rise into her old role as enterprising mischief-maker, Sheila not the nurse-caretaker so much anymore. And as for himself, he could be adaptable, endlessly adaptable. One happy possibility in his mind kept firming up better and better: For Isobel, this finally could be some small beginning of a whole new leniency toward herself, and a self-forgiveness – if only he might eventually come out and tell her, he’d known all along, all those years, he knew and he never despised her, he never judged her harshly, he always just waited, waited for her to come out of a wayward phase, because forgiveness had always been part of his very flesh, and part of the air they breathed, so that even the word or concept “forgiveness” felt artificial, in context with his wife. She just always had it all along.

The bureaucrat at her computer keyboard made a finishing keystroke and turned away, still hunched. She drew her dark shawl up higher, and to dismiss him she pointed out the front door, making a scythe of her finger to indicate a left turn that would take him to Temporary Building B.

Administrative Discharge. It sounded like something that happens to soldiers who aren’t measuring up. Which would be his father. He felt himself losing authority and plausibility, in this place.

“Did you include the middle initial? It’s Edward X. Sproehnle.”

The woman sat down, at her far-off desk. It was situated beside one of those old-fashioned dumbwaiters for sending inter-office files. Within her shawl, she made a hunchback that meant, I’m sorry sir they’ll have your records in the other building.

Well, he was, to her, only one of a million supplicants who come up against this counter. At Temporary Building B he would find a bureaucrat who was less resigned. Some error had been made. He got back out in the sun.

Outside, the city had become utopian. Oakland was a fresh place, with the new mayor and the new city council. The bars and peep shows were gone from this old avenue, and the 24-hr paycheck-cashing traps were gone, and so were the payday loan places, with their revolving armored stiles at the door, like drains leading to hell, their all-nite floodlamps, their barred windows, their glittering marquees implying that loans could be glitzy as porn. All that was gone. Now there was a boutique for kitchen equipment, a Persian rug store, a bookstore. Traffic engineers had put heavy cement planters everywhere blocking intersections, brimming with pansies, preventing automobile traffic, making the pedestrian king. The new regime was invincibly smart: all printed public advertising had been outlawed by city ordinance, tastefully, so there were no billboards, no ads on buses sliding past, nothing commercial to invade the citizen’s eye, or depose his sovereign consciousness. Oakland was like a European tourist village. On the grounds of the VA, a café for veterans had been set up. A trio of guys drank pale wine this morning in stemmed glasses misted with humidity. It was a fine day. During the drive here, he’d flown above town on the freeway, and over the Bay Bridge. San Francisco all around had stood up and petitioned his eye as if he’d never seen it before – as if the whole city, while he slept, had popped up into existence from nothing, glistening.

Temporary Building B was behind Temporary Building A, naturally.

A ramp climbed to its door. Inside, a young man stood ready and waiting at a beige metal counter, under ceiling lights in frosty panels. Behind him, on steel shelves, cardboard file-boxes ranged back through the years.

“How may I help you?” said the young man, a ringlet-haired blond with skin the same manila as everything else in Temporary Building B. Virgil gave his father’s name. The soft hands worked the computer keys. Every computer in government is grimy and out-of-date.

With a frown of cognition, the man turned away from the counter and headed down the aisle between tall shelves in the wafting gait that bespoke a timelessness in the life of an office worker. He told Virgil as he vanished, “Edward X. Sproehnle. He would be here.”


“What I want,” Virgil said to the vanished archivist somewhere in among the stacks, “is his birthplace. I’m hoping there’s a file that will show his home town.”

The clerk, flickering in the depths of the shelves’ aisles, lingered in view and explained, “We condensed,” gesturing at himself, the shelves, the whole room, all residue of the condensation. Then he disappeared again. “We had to make room in Temporaries, what with the new wars and all.”

He came back then gesturing around at all the shelved souls, making a mild smile, “Plenty of folks.”

He was carrying the inevitable folder. It was too thin-looking to be very meaningful.

“These are all folks that got synopsized,” he said by way of apology.

Yet it was momentous. Here, in hand, would be history.

When the page came up, his father’s disappearance inside the system was explainable: the page was headed “Edward X. Sprainly,” the misspelling that pursues a Sproehnle all his life. This clerk had been able to find the file because he’d misheard it as “Sprainly” and walked off looking for that.

There was just this single page for Edward X, among other folks’ single pages. But it had what he needed: before Indiana, there was Lewiston, Maine.


Born June 29, 1940, Lewiston, Maine


Lewiston, Maine. Another place and time forsaken. How like unspent money are all places. How like checks never cashed. Even San Francisco was an unredeemed certificate this very morning, as he flew past on the elevated freeway not taking any exits. In Lewiston, Maine, he pictured small mountains, deep woods, an American town in the forties – a town on slopes maybe, with a quiet slowed-down mining economy, or a timber economy. Plus a little tourism, a little light manufacture. Whole lives are led there. Downtown Lewiston would have a couple of lunch-counters and bars, a bank, emporium, movie theatre.

Anyway that’s how one imagines it. Which will have to be good enough because he will never go to Lewiston, Maine.

The box at the upper-right margin said: Administrative Discharge, 1968.

“What does this mean? ‘Administrative Discharge.’”

“That’s just a word,” the bureacrat spoke in consoling tones. “Means he was put out a little before his tour was up. That’s all.”

He had green eyes with sleepy lids. Golden curls. Pockmarks on the bridge of his nose. The kind of unearthly beauty that comes of racial mixing. He probably had plenty of women fretting over him.

Virgil looked down at the page. Maybe “Administrative Discharge” was what happened when an elbow got permanently injured. But the form seemed to make no mention of medals/decorations/citations, though there was a blank space for that.

And there was an alien name. Under the category of “Beneficiary” there was someone named Pepper Caine – which must be a woman – somebody who had lived at “Harbor Capri Apartments, San Rafael, California, 94901.”

It was a person he’d never heard of.

And she was the so-called “Beneficiary.” The original document had been typed up by an old-fashioned typewriter in an ink-clotted typeface. Subsequent Xerox reproduction (the gumminess of old photocopy processes) was a seal of the page’s authenticity.

“What does ‘Beneficiary’ mean? Who is ‘Beneficiary’?”

“It’s who gets your death benefits.”

“I’ve never seen her name before. I have no idea who this person is.”

“If nobody applies for death benefits,” he shrugged, “possibly she’s deceased. In that case, benefits would have reverted.”

“I never heard that name in my life,” said Virgil, being unreasonable now.

The problem was, his father did live, for only a month or two, at a place called The Capri Apartments. He was a kind of live-in janitor at that place for a little while. “How much are death benefits?”

The handsome young man’s answer to this question was to say nothing, nothing at all. Death benefits were meager.

“My father had a Purple Heart. There’s a space here for honors and decorations. But no mention of the Purple Heart.” Virgil had seen the medal itself, in its little flip-top case on a bed of satin. Once when he was home alone, he had secretly lifted it from its case and pinned it on his own T-shirt, where its weight pulled the fabric down hard. He remembered, too, the certificate. It bore the same misspelled name Sprainly. “Where’s the Purple Heart?”

The bureaucrat was starting to be truly sorry.

Virgil clapped the folder shut. He picked it up and walked out the door.

Then he stopped because he realized he had to leave the thing here, and he came back and put it on the man’s counter and went out again, down the ramp, to the asphalt.

Deceased. Beneficiary. Everything was too late. His father, the Ed Sproehnle he knew, was a man incapable of being devious, a man absolutely unguarded, always eager to enter on long boring, trivial conversations at his garage workbench, shelves crowded with tin cans full of nails and bolts and screws, balls of string he’d sorted, sandwich-wrap cellophane he had rinsed frugally for re-use and hung to dry on coathangers with clothespins, broken lawn furniture that was being preserved because its aluminum tubing might come in handy one day – all of it, all his father’s purity of stinginess, his shyness of even setting foot outside his own front yard, everything about him was dopey, and yet there was another woman.



Pepper is the curly-haired woman in #221, rumored to be an ex-junkie, who always wears hats, rain or shine, night or day, indoors or out – and always rubber flipflops and jeans – and who walks with a curious corkscrewing dawdle, when she, say, makes an appearance crossing from the carports, shuffling on the green-colored cement around the central courtyard pool. She’s been complaining of a problem in her refrigerator. The ice-maker in #221 doesn’t seem to work. And it’s Ed Sproehnle’s job to go up and see what he can do about it.

The image in the Angel Mischal’s darkroom screen is of a middle-aged Edward X. Sproehnle, checking his reflection in the janitor’s-closet mirror downstairs at The Capri Apartments, to see that he looks okay before going up to #221. He doesn’t look badly-slept. The disks of blue in his eyes are always refreshed during the hour of deep sleep that always comes, at last, around dawn. For Ed, nightly insomnia has never been unpleasant, or even boring, but rather an elation, a nightlong shining wakefulness. His hair is combed in grooves with Vitalis, plenty of hair, like President Carter’s but browner, skin taut, his fortunate body still the same body he earned at Fort Jackson as a boy years ago. He turns to the utility-closet shelves to choose a bright chrome crescent-wrench from the toolbox, just for something to hold. He can come back down for the right tools after he’s seen the problem. Right now he just needs to have something in hand when he knocks, to legitimate himself as the new maintenance man and put the tenant at ease.

Mischal advances the reel by hand. One man, Virgil Sproehnle, still to be spent. Spent in the Old Dispensation while it lasts.

He has ordered up reels from the Annals, all over the darkroom floor, flat cartons with adhesive stamps: “Guardians of Edward X. Sproehnle, Lewiston, Maine, 1940 – 2000.” So-called “Codicil” reels, each filmcan is labeled with a seal forbidding alteration. He keeps the reel turning as he watches Virgil’s father – spry Ed Sproehnle – climbing the courtyard stairs toward #221 alone, his very body misplaced. For Ed Sproehnle’s body belongs back on Robinsong Lane with his boy and his wife, going through the motions of the chores he’d evolved for himself on his own property, rhombus-shaped where Robinsong Lane curves, $425/m0nth, the sun on his back by the east wall of the garage while he waters the lettuce. Here in the Harbor Capri Apartments, there’s no decent soil. What little dirt there is – like the strip behind the carports – is poisoned by exhaust and the jetsam from the freeway overhead, broken glass, decades of litter from the QuickStop.

Around the swimming pool courtyard, each of the four staircases is a rising xylophone, cement wafers on a single iron spine. To tread on a staircase is to make the whole thing clang profoundly. Upstairs, the balcony area around #221 is cluttered with Pepper Caine’s colony of furnishings: a doormat of Astroturf with an embedded plastic daisy, a ceramic frog, a very small Weber barbeque, a fern hanging in macrame. All the other tenants must have a prickly time edging around it all. Among the cars in the carport, hers is the white Volkswagen Rabbit.

The front door swings open and Pepper is already smiling and wilting, “The iceman,” she says with a wobble, “…Cometh.”

A tenant’s smell – old breakfast, and something dental or medicinal – indicates the limits of her life. The story at The Capri is that she was once a heroin addict, who spent some years working in a Napa clinic helping other addicts reform, and that she now lives a quiet life, of small appetites. Nevertheless, in the doorway, as she weaves on her stalk, she’s lit up by a flirtatiousness, even at her age, and Ed focuses far forward, on the refrigerator.

She turns her back on him and meanders in. Maybe she’s not so old, just faded, from the drugs. Her permed-kinky hair shows a freckled scalp, it’s an open bald spot at the crown. Which explains the hats. Her behind in jeans as she walks away is shrunken to knobs scarcely to hold up the waistband. A dancer-type leotard grips a no-longer-young woman’s broader back. The white VW Rabbit in her carport space, he remembers, has a bumper sticker advertising “Jazzercize!” in pink script; he seems to recall noticing housecleaning tools in its hatchback window, a vacuum cleaner, a feather-duster.

Silver wrench going before, he enters. Beside her refrigerator, the window has a view of Harbor Boulevard, a “boulevard” that looks more like a rear area than a true street, a zone of auto-body shops and industrial spaces that close their big doors at quitting time, all under the shadow of the freeway. The high freeway on its concrete pillars – north to Santa Rosa and south to San Francisco – is a constant thundering heavy stormcloud overhead that never rains, which in fact blights the earth beneath that never gets washed and is sterilized against even weeds. He misses the hoe-tumbled dirt at home with Virgil and Evelyn, enriched by his own kitchen’s coffee grounds and eggshells, and by mold and earthworms, fluffy as birthday cake. He says, “Let’s have a look,” opening Pepper’s freezer compartment.

Inside, behind Lean Cuisine boxes that have to be lifted aside, among hard snowdrifts, this ice-maker obviously hasn’t worked in years. The little aluminum feed-tube thing is rusted permanently shut. It’s obvious right there. Chalky corrosion.

Mrs. Caine is hovering. Wine and cigarettes.

There’s a fork in the dishrack by the sink and he tries using one prong of it to poke up into the machine’s aluminum urethra, but it’s really hopeless. The corrosion is solid. Mrs. Caine, with her cigarette breath, keeps hovering. He and she will sleep together that night eventually. Only because sometimes something has to happen. Rather than nothing happening. And they will have both been drinking that wine of hers, blush zinfandel. Las Cuidadas says the jug label. “You’ve got a wedding ring,” she’ll mention, while he smokes in bed beside her, even though he’s meaning to quit cigarettes. He’ll answer, “She’s a couple exits up.” Deep somewhere in the pelvis, Pepper’s reproductive mechanism was long ago burned out by untreated gonorrhea during certain years of drugs and foolishness in New York and Montreal, so with Pepper there will never be any fuss beforehand or worries afterward. It’s something she promises about herself. The Danskin leotards are the kind that unsnap at the crotch – she owns a wardrobe of them, some white ones, a blue one, a pink one, and a number of turquoise ones she favors, because her eyes are that color. And she always wears the same jeans. And rubber flipflops. Probably when she’s out housecleaning, too: jeans and flipflops. And always the hats.

Anyway, the jug of gold wine on her kitchen table is just catching the sun in an inner filament when Ed pulls his head and elbows out of the freezer. And starts stacking back Lean Cuisine dinners. The sun going down has reappeared beneath the cloud lid in a final lunge at the day’s usual miracle, while Ed, facing failure before the ice-maker, feels complex moral responsibilities forming a web around him in this room. When Pepper offers him a glass of wine from that bottle, her words are, Can I offer you something, Mister Serious. And her calling him that is so unfair, so delicate, that his consent – Well why not – extends outward into the future and the coming dusk, the lamplight she’ll turn on, above the foam-rubber couch, where things will grow to be inevitable, while night falls, faster here under the shadow of 101 than anywhere else. Somewhere, on blessed hillsides across town, there would continue to be a golden sunset, but not down here anymore. After his admission that he’s married, two exits up, she would say, “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light.”

“Excuse me?”

“Millay,” is her explanation. She makes a tilt of her wineglass – out toward a book somewhere in the room. “I love her.” Then she coughs, with a cough that lifts her hips, the cough from back in New York and Montreal. And the handkerchief appears.

“I don’t know that particular one,” is his only possible response. – Ed always has to draw this line at some point in a friendship, the sooner the better: his limits.

She would offer him huevos rancheros, her specialty. Which she would cook often during the coming months. There would always be a second glass of wine, and adjournment to the couch, one of those fold-outs of hinged foam rafts that flop out on the floor. When the inevitable ensued, that night under lamplight, it would be a scene of mercy and shame and travail, Ed’s vision buried somewhere past her shoulder, while she watched him almost nostalgically, almost from a distance, from a remote past, or a remote future. Which was a little unnerving. Even until the ultimate moment, she would feed on the sight of him in a kind of narcosis, until, like a syringe whose plunger is pulled rather than pushed, she would draw her palpable pleasure out of him, always for Ed a minute of highest privilege and duty. And then she still gloated over him, upon the horizon of the mattress, her adoration melting still, herself a form of sunset – it made him self-conscious at first, then soon enough, he would grow used to it, with a callousness he didn’t like in himself. She brought that out in him, it was one of her influences. For example, he never did inquire about some things, like how one tooth got to be deep dark grey and chipped. She let it be seen only in unguarded moments, clownishly. Mostly she kept her lips together. He didn’t want to know, anyway. During the season when he served as maintenance man at the Harbor Capri Apartments, she would buy him new workboots, and new shirts; and underwear and pajamas and socks. She would begin the very next morning by giving him a long, ceremonious haircut in the kitchen. She always paid for take-out food. She administered massages, by the light of her scented candles. She painted small watercolors to decorate the walls of the maintenance-man unit on the first floor. But she seldom visited his place. It was always her apartment. She bought him an expensive new fake-sheepskin coat. Which he never did wear. She seemed to receive a little money from her father. There was a father somewhere, somewhere in Sacramento or Santa Rosa, who would perhaps buy new tires for her car, or pay her insurance premiums. Yet Pepper always earned her own money, too: the Volkswagen Rabbit’s backseat always held a vacuum cleaner, a pillowcase full of rags, a bucket of spray bottles. That first night, while they lay in the glow of her scented candle, in bed with the dinnerplates of leftover huevos rancheros on the floor beside them, the ice-maker in the kitchen made a hum. Then an inner crunch. It was the sound of a set of cloudy ovals being secreted within. The prong of his fork had stimulated something. And Ed said in a shot at a joke, “Hey it’s ovulating,” because her infertility was something she’d told him about before they got started.

She got it but she didn’t laugh, it just seemed to make her adore him all the more, her eyes all the more languidly slitted. The ovulating fridge would furnish a recurring joke during their years together. Eventually a tired joke. Many seasons into the future, she might end a faltering phone-conversation by saying, “…Well, I guess I’ll go see if my fridge is ovulating.”

He never did fix it. It never made another ice cube. The aluminum mechanism was blistered tight. Time passes, and people just go on – looking a little older with each haircut, still renting rather than owning, while homes rise out of reach; the meadows of childhood are flowing away; the simple abrupt exit off 101 at Smith Ranch Road, where, once, you could hear the tree-frogs as your car slowed, will be covered over by a magnificent expansive clover-leaf, requiring as much acreage as a lake. The new Citibank and the multiplex cinema are shimmering there. A bank and a movie theatre are there for other people, new people.

She knew all along Ed was only waiting for his wife to let him come back home. That first night, when they heard the crunching sound from the refrigerator, they picked up their dinnerplates and went into the kitchen and looked in the freezer, to find the apparatus had produced not ice cubes, but just one last batch of little shrunken brown scarabs, frozen old rust-water. And then it never produced anything else. To chill the pink wine, she went on buying bags of Party Time ice at the QuickStop. Eventually, Evelyn let him come home. Home was Ed Sproehnle’s happiness. It was his earthly paradise, where he could take care of things. That was something Pepper saw all along. He needed to be with his boy Virgil, and his wife, and the garden that was his riotous empire. Sometimes Pepper drove past the house over the years. Nobody ever noticed the white VW Rabbit going by.

Ed never did worry about her. She’d made it clear, she was someone who would always know how to take care of herself and be contented, what was left of her after Montreal and New York. She would always have her watercolors, and her housecleaning jobs, a little wine in the evenings, her herbal tea in the mornings. He might come back sometimes maybe, just for a visit, and go through the old motions. His wife Evelyn, for the rest of their marriage, would be aware he had some vague commitment back at The Capri. Pepper didn’t need any public existence. She didn’t mind remaining over the years a one-time apparition. The visits to 221, when the candle was lit and the lamp was clicked off, would remain a secret not because of Evelyn’s jealousy, but because of Virgil, the boy, he must remain innocent of this obligation a man sometimes can have. She cooked Ed a special farewell dinner when he moved out of The Capri and back home.

But even then, they both knew, too, that it wasn’t over and this was only the beginning of something else. She liked to say there’s no such thing as endings, there are only beginnings. It was an instance of her peculiar mysticism. At the last dinner together, he was sitting with his glass of that same wine at the kitchen dinette, and she reached into the freezer and pulled something out. It was the chrome wrench. He’d left it there, all these months. It had been conquered by frost, inside there, while he’d totally forgotten about it, and it never entered his mind. She said, “Remember this?”

This was their last time together, and she took it to the sink. To wash off the bar of snow, she ran tapwater over it. “Might as well thaw it now.”

Mischal stops the film. The hand-crank will suffice for rewinding. When it’s done, he pulls the reel off the spindle. With splicing tape he secures the loose end of film – so he can restore the reel to its flat metal can and then lay the can away again in the armored carton and buckle the webbing-straps.









There’s No Such Thing As Endings, There Are Only Beginnings




So, Virgil’s hands may have been on the wheel but the car was basically driving itself the whole way across San Francisco. He had seen the name “Pepper Caine” on a form at the VA, and now even Pine Street – the long crosstown straight shot, with its timed stoplights to keep up with – even it was suddenly treacherous and deep as he escaped past long rows of parallel-parked cars, block after block. His own father, who had seemed incapable of doubleness, was a sort of “liar.” And Virgil couldn’t exactly resent it. Not as he ought to.

He had a very clear memory of his father. He was standing in the middle of the living room, his baggy workpants belted tight – there were guests present – and he was telling his one war story, jerking an elbow up, to show how a drill press had sprung up and some kind of handle had banged his elbow in the ulnar nerve. “To get a Purple Heart, you oughta hafta been in combat. Me, I spent the whole war in Saigon in the commissary motor-pool. Alls I was doing was tapping a bolt-hole in a carburetor mounting, and this thing whopped up and got me in the funnybone,” he rubbed his elbow. Whenever he was the center of attention he spoke with an accumulating Southern accent, though he was never from anywhere near the South. “So that’s my war story.” As the years went on, and Virgil got older and wise enough to be ashamed, his father’s inferiority became a building-block of his own strength. Now there was something to, strangely, respect: he’d been a liar. There was a second woman. There was a whole other Ed Sproehnle back there in the world.

He rounded the corner at Masonic, and here it was, the realtor’s nondescript old office building. The trip across from Oakland had elapsed in one of those efficient blind trances that sometimes connect Point A to Point B. What he’d come to was a typical old invisible kind of building, along Geary amidst a sparse congregation of competing mattress stores, where lately all the old synagogues had been selling out – for this was the neighborhood of a previous generation’s grand synagogues, gateway to the foggier Russian-deli neighborhood. Even the prominent temples had been transformed into nightclubs or car dealerships and, in one case, a big emporium of high-class shops and a Gap SuperStore, so that a serious Hebrew gloom had lifted in all these blocks past Masonic. The realtor’s place, mid-block, was a building he’d surely been glimpsing for decades without ever looking at it, one of the ordinary places in the corner of the eye which, in its constancy, turns out to have been a steady witness on life, an untitled book an a shelf among other ledgers, the kind of building whose address, in the phonebook, is listed in the flipped-past sections you assume you’ll never have to stop and focus on, at least when you’re young. In the end, if you survive long enough, life will send you to pretty much every section of the Yellow Pages, even the drab parts, and the embarrassing or the ridiculous or merely boring parts, the revolting parts, even the scary parts, every last section, you don’t escape a single section of the Yellow Pages if you live long enough.

There’d been some renovation. In years of soaring prices, all such places had been fixed up. The newly installed windows were vacant, each bearing a sticker advertising a manufacturer. No work was going on today, for some reason. A banner was stretched above the front door:





He had arrived here only because an earlier idea, and momentum, had deposited him. What he wanted was to go home and tell Sheila and Isobel: he was a man who’d gained a father. That was the feeling. Now everything would have a different heft, even his own physical person passing through an ordinary doorway.

No elevator was in sight, inside. At the lobby’s back wall was a glass door, labeled “Immer Genug & Yissurim,” and above that, “PROVIDENCE.” Visible inside the glass door was the person Mr. Genug himself, at a desk. It couldn’t be anyone else. It was the man who went with the telephone voice, a congenitally short person, he must be enthroned on a stack of books. He seemed to be a instance of that syndrome where only the limbs are stunted, while a normal largeness has fed the joints, the big hands, the big head.

Mr. Genug – alone in his one-room windowless office, without a secretary, or a desk for a secretary – didn’t look up from his work, but he said, “Hello, good morning. Just a minute please.” Then he went on punching keys on an old-fashioned adding machine, tallying a column of figures that emerged on a strip of paper that sank in scrolls to the floor, where it piled up. For his numbers, he was consulting vertical-ruled columns in the pages of an old-fashioned huge ledger, a book as big, to him, as a cellar door.

In apology for his technology, he said, “…We do things the old way.”

There was a chair, but Virgil didn’t sit, while behind him the glass door sank shut. “My name is Virgil Sproehnle. You left a telephone message and I thought I’d drop by.”

The realtor went on working. The heel of his palm hit the ADD bar. Every time he hit it, the machine made a mechanical thump on the desk. Scrolls on the floor had been piling up for an eternity. The man had to fairly climb the tall page of his ledger to begin on a new column. Meanwhile, again today, as sometimes happened, Virgil’s physique was impersonating his father’s. His father’s defeated optimism was in his shoulders, his father’s gratefulness to be anywhere at all. Waiting for the realtor to finish, he stood up taller, to rise through the feeling, because a dread in his chest was reviving. Where does all the dread in the world come from? This was a paralysis from those days in his childhood when he stayed home from school pretending to be sick, in his bedroom with the door shut. He made only trips to the freezer, for Popsicles. Then came back to bed and closed the door. His mother seldom knocked. She knew he was faking but she let him. Lazy, spoiled, famously underachieving, he watched all the reruns, until – bleakest moment – the “I Love Lucy” show came to an end, and the actors’ credits (for Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley, Jr., Vivian Vance, then the signature emblem of A Desilu Production) crawled up the screen, all superimposed on the satin heart in the background, the heart that symbolized the real love between the two characters, Lucy and Ricky, the love that would always abide, despite their funny quarrels and misunderstandings. O, Desilu Productions. O, the satin heart, in its nest of rumpled satin. His lame father always got out of bed before dawn and limped around stoking the stove with sawn lumber ends from construction sites. Its smoke was a smudge out over the neighborhood. Whenever he met up with people on the sidewalks the grown man fairly curtsied. His mother could never invite anybody over. Which wasn’t only because the house itself was “like a tool shed,” as she said, but also, honestly, because her own chin was so weak, her eyes so goggly, she stayed inside doing crossword puzzles on the ottoman in the den where the blinds were never raised. Virgil had long since stopped inviting any friends over, years earlier. He’d stopped inviting friends over around the time he realized the homemade swing set (made of wooden two-by-fours; with triangular gussets of plywood at the apexes) was abnormally rickety, the first impossible-to-ignore instance in the pattern of abnormalcy. Whenever he swung high, it creaked and the whole four-legged swing set started trying to literally walk off, in the direction of the Gutstorbs’ fence. In his bedroom on school days, playing sick, he ate Popsicles without cease, one after another, so that he got to hate the cold in his neck, the Popsicles’ cedar astringent tongue-depressors, stained orange, or grey. But he kept going out to the freezer at every commercial, getting one more. He was storing them up in some kind of mad metaphysical bank-account, as if consuming Popsicles had become a deadly serious job.

“…Wonderful,” said Mr. Genug, his head still bowed over his work.

Virgil sat down. The only furniture was a filing cabinet and the realtor’s desk, a rented-looking thing somehow. There was also this folding-chair, where Virgil sat. On the wall was a windowframe leading to an empty niche: it was an old-fashioned dumbwaiter: second dumbwaiter in one day. If there was a partner named Yissurim, he wasn’t in this office.

Mr. Genug said, while he punched the sturdy machine, “I apologize. All this construction work.”

“You’re just setting up business here. Looks like.”

“I?” said Mr. Genug. It was the voice of a cartoon-character, husky and bright and likable. He pushed the heavy machine to one side and sat back in his chair and at last feasted his eyes on Virgil. A gnarled child, fiery of eyebrow, surely he was elevated on a stack of books. “No, no, I’ve been here forever,” he contradicted Virgil with pleasure.

“Ah. Then they built around you.”

“Yes. Ha. Almost. Not quite.” The man liked a slight wit. In relish he scrubbed his two hands together. “I’m so glad you’ve come, Mr. Sproehnle. I know all about your development in Artemisia County. I watch new filings, it’s what we do. Let me explain my proposal straightaway. I want to show you a way you can rebuild your assets on a tax-free basis, while accomplishing a little good in the world.”

Whatever it was, Virgil let his head bobble as if he were open to thinking about this, and he answered, in a complete irrelevancy, “Well! You sure don’t overfurnish your place.”

He had to give himself credit, he was dead-right this morning. It was about taxes. No doubt he says the same thing to everybody. Rebuild your assets. Accomplishing a little good in the world. He spends his time checking on county building-permit applications, then he lays the same spiel on everybody. Some folks bite, some don’t. If somebody bites, he does the paperwork, turns some of it over to an attorney, and takes a fee.

He was lifting up his ledger’s heavy front door, to flop it shut. “My office, no. I like an office that is not much furnished. I love rooms, you know. I’m a realtor. The rooms are what I do!” He smiled, floating a hand in the light, where immanent sheetrock-dust seemed to choir, mistily. These were remarks he’d made for many customers before. “Underfurnishing is part of showing a property. You get to like how it feels.”

Virgil observed, “So, you get out and do the selling, too.”

“Reduce the clutter because remember, you have to lead clients in rooms they’ve never been.” He was a character who crusted over when speaking wanting to keep a grip on one idea at a time. “Because what’s at stake? I do a lot of this, and when a young couple walks in and tours a house, what’s at stake? They are inside it, yet they have no idea what is working on them. Really. A house is like that.” His hands came together lying on the desktop.

Virgil created a chuckle, then offered a way to get back on track, “Of course in my case, personally—”

“…Living room. Bedroom. Kitchen. We just stroll around. And it’s the sign of a sale: usually the husband will reach out and start touching, just touch and test, like if there’s old window putty or such-like thing. They like to touch the stove. Happens if the buyer is in love. Touch the stove? – be a full-price offer. Very timid – pip! – little touch. The past is a tremendous thing in a house, because it’s the future. So they like to disapprove. But disapprove out loud. Wallpaper, patio bricks, ugly, ugly. I stand by the front door, leave the front door open while they look, and I can hear them. It’s very important to say out loud you hate, for instance, the patio bricks. The woman, if she uses the word ‘hate’ on something, you’re getting to good-as-closing. So you see.” His hand indicated the room around them. It was an ideal instance of a room.

This old man alone every day in this office making cold calls, with this sentimentality to sustain him, he was irredeemably peculiar and Virgil was getting the familiar foreboding, here was one more hard-to-explain person he would be fated to actually like, or actually admire, or somehow be an explainer/apologist for.

“Maybe it’s not a young couple. Maybe it’s an old woman, and it’s time.” The large hands, palms up, lifted and dropped alternately as two pans in a balance. “Things that used to be important, they’re not important.”

Virgil would say no-thanks to a tax shelter – he was only waiting for an opening to get away, but it was a treat to have met someone specific, with sustaining peculiarities, someone with a niche in the world, out here on the far reaches of Geary Boulevard flourishing in a crevice.

“With you, where you are, I want to propose that your development be restructured as a non-profit. There are subsidies and tax-forgiveness.” Right away, with this kind of talk, Virgil’s mind was out the door. “In future,” Genug went on, “non-profits are going to be much more prevalent as business models.”

If he were a “non-profit,” he would be expected to scrap all the Artemesia property’s big surveyed parcels. And the three-story architect-designed home plans. It was time to figure out how to get out of here. He belonged back home with Milton and Isobel and Sheila and Lupe. He wanted to risk reentering the air they’d scented this morning. And of course he wanted to tell them. About the discovery of his father’s secret other life.

One’s father could be as profound as oneself, and as selfish and sad as oneself. As bewildered as oneself. He remembered how cheerfully his father allowed himself to be bossed around. By pretty much anybody. Now thirty years later, a father’s adulterousness would have an effect of adding a rim of shadow to every ordinary thing.

“We at Providence, we will record all title and deed. We stay current with requirements. We are a fiduciary and we guarantee that all Providence’s transactions are impeccable. There are a number of government programs.”

“Tell me,” Virgil said, “How do you get your percentage?”

(His mother always knew he wasn’t really sick. Even later on, in high school when he stayed home, she would open his bedroom door a little and ask if he would like her to pick up more Popsicles on the way home from work, standing there in her good Bank-of-America clothes. Did she go off to work knowing even then? That there was another woman? Yes she did. She did. She knew.)

“I would be the sole broker, so I would take four percent.”

And be able to lead people through rooms. Rooms galore.

“How many units do you imagine?”

“Just yesterday,” the realtor smiled, his gaze pulling up, as if he were receiving irrelevant instructions from an earpiece. “Just yesterday I did a showing in Daly City. Daly City is the little ticky-tacky houses. It was a boy and a girl, and they’re engaged.” On his pedestal he wriggled back in higher repose, settling in for the long narrative – and for some reason at this point, Virgil stopped being impatient and started enjoying the ride, how tortoise-slow, how out-of-control it was drifting.

“A two-bedroom one-bath, it’s a shack, but it’s a solid shack. The girl stands in the master bedroom door and she looks. And then she sees down the little hall. The hall goes about three feet. One other little bedroom. You understand, I know they will buy this house. This is their house. They’re all ticky-tacky. The marble palace is also ticky-tacky. The financing, poof, it comes,” he rubbed his fingers together igniting dollars from thin air. “Financing is just even more ticky-tacky. Her young man, in the kitchen, he is attracted to the stove. He turns the gas flame on and off. He tests all four burners! On. Off. Tests every burner. On-off. On-off. This boy has a new job, he’s going to be a statistician for an insurance company. So he’ll get credit. But he’s too skinny. Got something wrong in his liver. Skinny as a rail. He’ll have a short life. His bride is a fat girl, very pretty, very beautiful, and these two could not stay far from each other. The line between them was about ten feet. Ten feet max. Where one goes, the other goes. We went in the bathroom, all three of us, we crowd in there, and the electrical outlet had a GFI. The Ground Fault Interrupter. It’s the little red button between the plugs. They’re called GFI’s. It’s a law. Or else escrow won’t close. So I explained this, and the boy still looks confused, so I tell him, ‘Nobody can die. This immediately stops the current within the time of a heartbeat.’”

The realtor’s face shone.

“Those were my words, ‘within a heartbeat,’ and the boy’s hand went out and lays upon the girl. I know right then. Full asking price, boom. Unconsciously he didn’t notice. He just puts his hand on a little part of her back. Neither of them noticed. But I notice, and I go boom, sale.”

Completely satisfied by his own story, he turned his chair on its axis, saying, “So!” Time to see what’s in the dumbwaiter. See if there’s anything relevant.

Virgil had missed a chance to interrupt and get out. For this interlude had become somewhat drowsy. And tolerable. And he liked the man Genug, with his old-pro’s dependable snapping-turtle satisfaction in having clamped down on one more commission, while yet being fatherly about a pair of kids. It must be an endangered species, old solitary businessman, in his obscure office inside here on a ground floor, where Geary’s competitive 45-mph traffic couldn’t be heard. In real estate, how could such a tenderness survive?

The only way is, for people like him to come along and, in effect, subsidize Immer Genug and Yissurim – by going along with a dull, prudent plan of converting his beautiful ten-acre parcels into affordable family apartments. Possibly subsidized. Multi-unit housing. Untidy yards. Probably tricycles, clotheslines.

Tax exemptions were fine but the Atremisia project was already deep into permits and designs. This little office hidden on Geary was a kind of moral trap, to be escaped fast, a room where an old man with the moral high ground could, basically, mug him, if he didn’t get away. Supposing he closed down Aardent and then also gave up the Artemisia project. What would he do all day? Who would he be, anymore, without that beautiful project?

Genug was looking over two folders he’d found in the dumbwaiter – frowning, as if they were new to him – while revolving back to his desk.

“Joint federal subsidies,” he said, and he opened one and scanned it. “Do you know anything about biochemistry?”

One of the documents had a colorful cover: a strand of DNA. And there was a familiar emblem, too. It was the space program. It was NASA’s logo: the little atom-thing with an orbiting streak.

“This would qualify for a subsidy.” Genug was looking over a table of contents. “Your property out there in the country would be a research campus.”

“A research campus.”

“They have a private firm that needs to affiliate itself with a non-profit. Which would be you: you would be the non-profit. And then they get federal funding.” He was turning through the pages. “It has an environmentalism angle.”

No, the Artemisia property was already surveyed for subdivision, already burdened with expensive proposals for traffic mitigation and soil engineering. In an obscure realtor’s office on outer Geary, this was an inconsequential hour, a pleasantly lost hour. Next year on the property, thirty-six beautiful residences would start rising – (two English Tudors, one Bauhaus moderne, a plantation colonial, two different Spanish-looking ones, a French Norman chateau, the designs had been coming in for months). All the surveys and drawings and permits would have to be scrapped. Instead, on his acres, scientists would dally, in the dappled shade on the quadrangle lawn, eating their bag-lunches, talking of biochemistry. In an architect’s rendering they’d be little pin-sized dolls, in white lab coats.

Which is the kind of hallucination that can attack a man on a day when $8,400,000 had been wired to his account. That number had sat in the bank all morning earning its tiny stingy interest rate (while the loan that bought the land continues, every day, to wash out a huge bite). All morning today, with his guard up – until this moment right now here – he had moved through the city carrying his secret big lump, as if it were actually a literal lump in his pocket with all the promiscuity of cash. Making him vulnerable.

Anyway he was almost home. He wanted to tell his two women his own father was an adulterer now, of some kind. Also, he wanted to face them again. He wanted to discover them in the kitchen in their bathrobes, putting together a snack with Guadalupe. And he wanted to sit on the floor and play with Milton. And see whether Isobel had spent much of her time hiding in her painting studio. He could imagine himself opening that bathrobe, rather frankly, because that was one pathway forward to forgiveness or forgetfulness or whatever it was they all needed. He needed.

“Well, Mr. Genug, it’s very interesting,” he said, as a first step in getting away from this.

The realtor was scanning pages. “This one here will describe the state of present research.”

“Biochemistry is certainly, definitely a wonderful science,” Virgil admitted, inanely. “But—”

“The research firm is in Maryland…” (The realtor was learning only as he flipped through.) “They need to affiliate with a non-profit, then they apply for money from NASA. It’s all about cells. Making cells healthier.”

“NASA is the Space Administration,” said Virgil, just to make sure they were both discussing the same general delusion. The document with the illustration of the DNA strand bore the title, NASA — Innovation Research & Technology Transfer – SBIR/STTR.

Soon he’d be outside, back on the street. It was hypnotizing inside here. Fluorescent light oddly dim, oddly murky. The sun outside would be bright and hazy as always nearer the ocean.

“And this little booklet…,” Genug scanned the other document. Then gave up and handed them both across to Virgil’s side of the desk.

It said, Fiduciary Regulations, Co-Subsidy, Taxation of Special Projects. The little coin in the center of the page was the seal of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, actually.

“That one is for your accountant. So there you are.” He pulled his adding machine back toward himself. “…Or…” He held out both open palms together, making a little book that was open to revision, “If low-income housing does interest you instead, I would be happy to inquire about similar trust arrangements. But I hope you will find the cellular conservation exciting.”

Virgil tucked both folders up under his arm, exactly like the high school notebooks he could slam-dunk in the nearest passing can on the last day of school in June. The realtor Mr. Genug was a perfectly harmless, kindly man, here in his out-of-the-way office eking out a benign existence. He would surely have experienced plenty of people who never called back.

“The important decision for you,” he said, “is the personal one: to condemn your personal wealth in a foundation. You set up a trust. Then the money would not be yours anymore. At present, at least you’re rich on paper. The one report tells you all about DNA and overpopulation. Then come back and we’ll talk in more detail.”

Virgil said in standing up, “Well, I do thank you for your time.”

There he’d delivered an unmistakable no-thanks. He could forget about this. He didn’t even need to understand it.

“Because you know what they say,” the realtor said, working himself forward in caterpillar motions, because he was going to get started on the adding machine again, pulling it toward himself, opening his account-book’s big cellar door. “You know what they say about being a rich man: ‘You Can Still Only Sit in One Chair at a Time.’”



Meanwhile back at the big house (total number of chairs 61 including attic), sunlight was flooding the conservatory, filets were marinating in the pantry, NPR babbled along unattended somewhere, the solar array was drinking in sunshine – the engineer from the climate-control place had come and gone – and Milton was napping and Bob was in his workshop. So the whole house navigated through another afternoon. Under the conservatory’s glass roof, Sheila sat in the damp glare in the big wicker loveseat in her gardening apron.

Isobel was moving around in the soil beds – harvesting a few things for dinner. She was good right now, but she could go either way, it seemed to Sheila. When she came out of her studio, it was the public, convivial, noisy Isobel – calling for Guadalupe and Milton, saying she was looking for playmates, even chatting with the landscaping-crew guys outside, even undertaking to pick up the floor in Milton’s playroom. The total effect was almost bristly. Emotionally, sex of course can always be a casualty-strewn drama. Today’s particular three-headed experiment in bed had been – this was the actual truth – an impossible fiasco to weave. When it’s two people, the natural drama, the “narrative,” is clearer. With the entry of a third, the story broke into not-so-plausible combinations and Isobel in the sheets reverted to what seemed her old character – sexually insatiable, conniving, the other two seemingly more guileless, more passive, more unselfish, so that the old wife in the end was impersonating a “sexpot” – with the result that the sexpot ended up somehow (this was a paradox) only flickering at the edges of the little arena, eternally excluded from the real thing even if she was at the very center.

It’s just impossible: impossible to take care of Isobel, someone like her, she won’t open herself up to be frankly taken care of, and her exclusion from natural honesty was shameful. It was grievous. Now in a sunny afternoon of aftermath, she was in pain of soul but couldn’t acknowledge it. Her usual condition. She forbade herself any introspection so that she might know she was in pain. Nor feeling she had any right. Telling herself she was in heaven here, or ought to be. In her, a sunshiny mood was a form of frantic evasion. All the while, she had no idea. She thought it truly was a sunshiny mood. She thought this was the real thing contentment.

A box lay in Sheila’s lap: a few little miniature zucchini, a Japanese eggplant, lemon cucumbers, all freshly torn from their stems, giving off their primitive odor of nutrition. She kept an eye on Isobel, who in her spattered painting-smock sailed between the raised beds among stalks and vines, choosing things for dinner. To crash through a shower of pea vines, she lifted her arms high in a harp. And Sheila felt the stab of admiration for her, the statue quality of her, like a figure-skater elevated slightly above all events, stately but teetering. She stopped in the middle of the garden and she turned and put her serious attention on Sheila. Among artichoke stalks, she said, “Stop brooding, Sheila. Having to wear an ankle-bracelet would be the worst sentence he could get.”

Sheila hadn’t been thinking of the trial. Not at all.

But she was able to switch channels with sudden easy force. This was always right there. “He hates the insanity defense.”

Isobel turned away again, going deeper into the glassed-in forest, saying, “It’s not ‘insanity,’ it’s ‘non compos mentis.’”

The actual difference between those two had never been made clear to Sheila. She watched her own thumbnail explore the stitching along the seam of her apron’s sash, thinking about her stepfather’s long face now that his beard was shaved. With the flat new face, he looked unhealthy, in a suit in a courtroom. And he looked not the least bit penitent, sitting in those courtroom chairs with armrests. He belonged in his muddy jeans in North Liberty. An additional misfortune was that his stammer, for some reason, vanished almost completely whenever he had to speak in court – and the stammer was always one of his charms – because when he spoke without the halts, he didn’t seem so thoughtful or kindly anymore, he seemed mean-spirited, he seemed too tightly put-together, especially with that haircut. It was no doubt true: he’d stay out of jail: his lawyers would find technicalities. Since he showed no remorse, remorse became her job, remorse and shame so sharp it caused abdominal contractions. She had honestly come to think the word “sabateur” did apply. And the word “insanity,” too. That’s what the legal system does, it brings judgment, public judgment into your own private, peculiar home.

In complete revulsion, she blurted out, “Anyway, where’s Virgil?”

Isobel went on cruising the gardens and presently drawled in agreement, “Mr. Ambivalence. This is typical.”

“Probably the Veteran’s Administration took a while.”

“He thinks the realtor is nobody but he’ll go see him anyway. Things like that. It’s all a way of keeping busy. Busy-busy-busy.”

Sheila had had similar thoughts, observing Virgil’s flight from the house this morning.

“It’s bizarre, you know: that there’s a hole in his mind where knowing a father’s birthplace should be. That is strange.”

The Riddle of Virgil, of his psychology, had been summoned before them, and they fell silent in its midst, a mystery no longer quite so alien today, because today was the day they’d made him hold on tight. Sheila’s thumbnail went on probing the seam in her apron’s belt. Her mind had gone straight to the moment in their bed when Virgil’s torso was a bridge, it was alarming as much as lovely, and, thinking about it, she could see she wanted it, because she was perpetually renewable as virginal! – the woman who had once thought herself bossy, selfish, “jaded” – jaded was the word she and her friends loved using everywhere, when they used to know the clubs in New York. Giving birth: that brought back virginity.

The motto nothing goes on forever certainly did apply, the words that, this morning, had decreed disorder and set loose the power of Isobel. Years ago in the Cranbrook dorm, for a semester with the girl down the hall she may have shared a succession of little bedtimes that, if somehow self-conscious, were at least definitely magnetic. But in the end just not as exotic and beastly as boys. And then finally, it couldn’t survive the trauma of a next-semester dorm relocation, and, so, was simply forgotten about, somewhat repressively. Forgotten about under the large, blind, dominant presence of a certain Beth, the dorm’s supervisory “RA,” an upperclassman, who was actually “That Way,” and famously “That Way,” a tall girl with a baseball player’s build, and saunter, and relaxed confidence, bluejeans. Males are so so enviable in the way they’re relaxed and competent and dangerous and funny, and keep to themselves, and Beth the RA actually succeeded altogether naturally and effortlessly embodying all that. Also Beth was perfect among all the girls. Never a scandal around Beth. But yet, somehow Beth’s presence established and occupied a space, a moral space, as well as an aesthetic space, that frightened off or excluded a young Sheila; and in any case, boys would never fail to be exotic and beastly – and tricky enough, and iffy enough, to hold her attention. They were just her destiny. As for Isobel Harkness, surely she was just a woman whose pure lust overflowed to include the other gender. And Sheila did love the better hold Isobel seemed to be getting, day by day. The sense that Isobel was scaling her like a wall. Now this other, somehow more portentous, male thing had come between them, to be robed in their hands, their caresses. But yet she knew she’d have it again, whenever it might happen again, she wanted that emergency for herself, though it might amount to a desertion of Isobel. Because Isobel could be further hurt. All for the sake of obeisance to a man’s mindless part. Standing at the potting table, Isobel was flipping through a basil clump, being choosy about the right leaves for tonight, and she started going on, speaking of the man in question who’d always been her husband:

“I think there’s a time-period in childhood when something can be cut off. Permanently, like, never grow back. Or just fall off ’cause it wasn’t getting nourished. You know, Virgil will always be a very – very serious, very industrious man.” She made them seem like unfortunate traits. She had begun to lean on the potting bench, letting her painting smock’s opening reveal the tender slope in there, everything extra-tender these days because of the fertility drugs – but then she lifted herself taller, and made the collar resettle at her throat, self-conscious of her beauty, so that Sheila was deliciously ashamed. She had a recurrent and unavoidable qualm: that the physical connection between herself and Isobel would end soon, naturally: that it will have been just a cocoon for both of them to emerge from, sticky in retrospect.

“He married me to get some class, that’s what he says, but it’s not totally a joke. He’ll always have… ambitions. And you know, be ambitious.” She smiled, using the kitchen shears to cut basil. Then she frowned. “I’ll tell you the single key factor to Virgil’s personality: he’ll always be getting away from his family origins. Some kind of anger there. I’ll tell ya, people sure do get tied in a certain kind of knot, by their mom and dad. And that knot? Best not to start untying it and being analytical. Better to leave it tied-up nice and tight.”

That generalization made the speaker stop and be thoughtful for a minute, because of course it pertained to herself, too, and made a mist around her. Often, Sheila thought, that’s the case with people. When they start generalizing, they’re talking about themselves.

“Anyway,” she picked up again, “speaking of ambitions, will you go to the Stanford campus? I’ll stay and play with Milton.”

In the question of college applications, she was guilty of changing her mind repeatedly. That was another thing that had happened to the bossy selfish girl.

“Don’t be mad, Isobel: I’ve been thinking anaesthesiology is too indoorsy. I’m thinking of viticulture. Is that ridiculous? You know, wine-growing.”

“I see. Working your way up. From anaesthesia to wine. Or is that down?”

“It’s my organic-chemistry thing. And there’s almost as much graduate school,” she fairly pleaded. She sometimes felt herself exploiting the depths of forbearance in the older marriage. “Because really, I’m looking at the activity that will consume the rest of my life, and I just don’t think I want to be indoors like that. And clean like that. I want to be dirty every day, seriously. Mud. And do chemistry. Those are my two requirements. Mud and biochemistry.”

“Davis has the big agriculture college,” Isobel said.

And knowing she’d been seen as beautiful and sexual for a minute, she came to join Sheila, because indeed she might be feeling more at ease this afternoon, not so prickly – sitting at the far end of the wicker settee, at a distance where physical affection was not proposed – and she sat stroking out the panels of her painting smock over her knee, its fabric stiffened by scabs of the pigments she always went to: the charcoal of the general background gloom, the grays and pearl that underlay her fallen bits of litter in their immortality. And commercial reds and blues and whites of candy wrappers or chewing-gum foil. And always the shadows’ luminosity, the frigid lavenders and purples.

She conceded, “I guess wine is a nicer environment. Than doctoring, I mean. As a place to spend your working days. Outdoors.”

She held a bunch of basil, smiling down on it as if it were a fond memory.

All this while, the most fascinating, the most important, electrifying thing right now was their strange new Virgil, this morning’s torment of him, and a whole new era. But a remnant of bristliness in her, still now, forbade its mention. Her fakey fondness for that basil in her lap was, down deep, like actual nostalgia.

She thought she’d risk this: “You should go out, and go to that opening. I’ll stay with Milton.” A postcard had arrived from a gallery. She never went out anymore. Especially not to galleries. Galleries were her past life, in another world, a lost world, a world where she was a businesswoman and an adulteress and, in her own conception, toxic.

“I don’t want to see what Fuller Goldeen’s got,” she said, grooming the green clump on her knee.

At least she’d answered. Rather than pretending nothing need be said.

So Sheila went further – while reaching across, to tear off one little leaf-tip from Isobel’s basil and smell it – “The man came. The man who’s working on the barn in the country.” And she plunged ahead, already combative now, “You know those pigments on plywood and Masonite won’t last. If you just put things in the garage, they’ll get moldy. I told the man go ahead.”

Isobel’s only response was to lower her face and, with both narrow wrists, start rubbing her itchy eyes, nice and hard, rubbing too hard. It looked like it could be hurtful to her eyes, rubbing so hard.

“The whole barn has to be retrofitted or his temperature-and-humidity controls won’t work. So I told him go ahead. I want to start moving up the finished paintings. They’ll get ruined in the garage. And ripped! They will.”

Isobel withstood the attack on her privacy staring at her own hands in her lap again, her eyes punished and recovering. At last she said, “They’re just something I enjoy.” Then she said, “The ‘art business’…” with a distaste for both words.

It was the most she’d ever said. Sheila decided to stop pressing. Objectively she might be right, they were all just big portraits of sidewalk litter. Curbstone detritus. And they were created by a kind of cheating: projecting a photograph and coloring it in. Still, the images were definitely – what – holy or something. Part of it was that the artist had revered what most people ignore, down where normally only pigeons see. She had a way of making scorned objects levitate in an eternity, putting metaphysical shadows under them. Sheila certainly didn’t follow art and these were nothing like what her mother and father used to buy, abstracts. But Isobel’s paintings did look like the things she used to see in New York, in those forbidding galleries downtown, sheetrock terrariums of pure white, storefronts, containing nary a human being, ever, indicating how expensive and rare it was to set foot inside.

From the kitchen came sounds. It was Virgil, back from his errands. In the kitchen office he was ransacking a file drawer, in one of his slapdash moods – and he was headed this way. So now Isobel would put on a glad face.

He came in bright-eyed, flushed. “This is kind of a fascinating thing here I’ve learned,” he said. “Seriously, this could be something.”

He looked embarrassed by his own intrusion. Both of them were sitting up straighter.

“Did you go to Oakland?”

He had to cast his mind back, over how his day had gone. His arms lifted in an embracing-nothing motion. “I want to explain this interesting idea. I talked to that man at Providence, the realtor. I dropped by his office, and I’ve been thinking about it. He gave me some pamphlets about a government program.”

Virgil was cute. He didn’t like himself being so much in earnest. He pocketed his hands and frowned at the floor. “So I looked them over. I want to describe this. See what you think. It’s a plan for turning the whole Artemisia County development over to…philanthropy! Research! Since this is your money – all of ourses’ money – I want to get your opinions about this. It’s very different from the plan.”

The last time Sheila saw him, this morning, he was fleeing down the corridor in Isobel’s floral kimono, yet now he had quite forgotten to be mortified.

“And we – us – ” he cast around at the whole establishment – “we wouldn’t get rich from it, not at all. The opposite.”

She kept an eye on Isobel, who, in the role of primary wife, made a creamy motion of substituting one perfect calf for another in the open gap of her painting smock, and said, “Virge, whatever you want to do with the money is fine.”

Virgil was unable to quite gauge the level of irony there. Suddenly now he had stepped, unthinking, back into the scented garden of them, and he seemed to remember all awkwardness.

Storing away the oil paintings was a topic Isobel would be relieved to put aside. She had sat up better, in some kind of elegance. Much nicer to discuss their money, their overflowing money. She’d risen up erect in an irony that was, in fact, eroticized. Virgil, still and always, had that effect on Isobel Harkness, bringing out a certain sparkle. For Sheila, there would always be more of a public barrier in that selfsame sparkle. And everything was so confusing, Sheila could be almost glad for any barrier between herself and Isobel, Isobel could be so presuming.

Virgil’s arms were gathering air again, hugging nothingness while he explained this new investment, forcing his voice deeper now. The light in his eye was lovely and she pretty much knew they’d go ahead and do it, whatever it was, he was so worried and handsome and flushed, and he was so well-intentioned, and so fundamentally excited about this. The wife, anyway, would eventually give it her close, critical examination before okaying anything.

However, he didn’t seem to have convinced himself. He spoke as if the whole thing annoyed him. “We would set up a foundation and give the money to it. We’d get a salary then, a very small salary. The entire Artemisia County property would become government property. We’d be ‘doing something good.’”

“We already do plenty of things that are very good,” said Isobel, with lascivious implications that were unavoidable. She smiled. It was an application of her medicine. Exactly enough. No nearer mention would be made, of their witchy experiment in the bed this morning, when Virgil had actually trusted the currents and gone under. At this point, for Virgil in the scented garden, confusion was entangling him fast, you could see self-consciousness climbing on him, it made him huggable.

“Virgil, really,” Isobel insisted. “Whatever.”

He looked as if easy consent wasn’t going to be helpful. Not at all.

“Okay,” she said. “Tell us. What kind of public good would we devote ourselves to?”

“I brought home some literature.” He was accustomed to moving against the current of Isobel’s sarcasm, a light but steady current. How this marriage had always worked was becoming clearer, more and more. Habitually Isobel was the executive one. Then Virgil’s subordinate position entitled him to a certain other authority, an obscurely higher authority than the executive’s.

“It could be a number of things. It could be housing for low-income people. But this realtor suggests that it could be a place for scientists to do research. Into molecules in cells. It’s the Space Administration, actually. Scientists are doing cell division to keep DNA intact. They want to get perfect cell division. Because ordinarily, people’s cell division gets imperfect when they get old. And that’s actually why. The DNA stops being perfect when it divides. That’s what ‘getting old’ is. I’ve just been reading a report about it. It’s actually the Space Administration. NASA is doing the research, so there’s federal money.”

It sounded familiar. Sheila remembered this. For a while in North Liberty, the Seed Bank had subscribed to listservs for people interested in gametes, and there were bulletins from the National Science Foundation. When she used to edit Bob’s email, among the daily stack of messages, the NSF had sent out a call for papers. It was about mitosis and telomeres. “That’s life extension,” she blurted out.

The others looked at her.

“It’s cellular mitosis. It’s life extension, like longevity. You’re right, it’s NASA. It’s a serious interest at NASA.”

“Why do astronauts,” Isobel inquired, “care about this?”

“Because,” she had to smile, “when we’re all immortal, they’ll need someplace else to put us all.”

Isobel’s eyelids sank, seeing some fun.

“Seriously, it’s how they think. It’s NASA,” Sheila said. “In a way, you have to hand it to them.”

Virgil, standing there, seemed in pain over this trend of conversation. “All our expenses till now would have to be a write-off. A hundred thousand dollars for surveying and everything. Pfup. Gone.”

That was an exaggeration, he was sloppy with numbers, but he had a point, they had spent a lot. Anyway she told them, “They do think medical science will get to that, with tissues.”

So then just because she happened to know a little something, they were looking at her. Seeing her as either awesome or eccentric. And she was attacked by a flood of belongingness, so that she would have liked suddenly all piling into bed again. It was a tremendous thing this morning, actually taking over a man’s mind, with a touch blacking-out his brain and blinding him, guiding him, their Virgil, their “leaping salmon.” Nobody was going to mention it but tonight things could start happening again: it’s what Isobel in her wisdom was healing to allow. Maybe it was the way they would solve the injustice of the triad. Solve it not by any reticence or consideration, but by just risking all the more.

Virgil told his wife, “She’s right. There’s going to be too many humans. Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing. There’s already too many humans.”

“So, with everybody living on and on, there’ll be even more too many.”

“Well, holy shit, then,” Isobel concluded, “Let’s have a foundation to support that.”

The three people in the room did, in fact, find themselves in the grip of something condensing. Isobel would be the one to look at the numbers, closely and skeptically.

Because, really, they hadn’t been doing much anyway, except planning to build mansions, a scheme whose moral indecencies were not smoothed over by how environmentally green and solar the houses were advertised to be. Not in Sheila’s view. And not with Bob around.

But this, now. If these people were having any success in conserving telomeres, that would be a revolution in applied genetics. Bob could be happy with this. He would know the biology. He could take an interest.

Also, if the thirty-six house plans were dropped, Virgil, in his role like a son-in-law, would be able to cease his whining in self-justification about how developers aren’t evil, developers provide a service to society, people need someplace to live, or else you’ve got a homelessness problem. Which always implied, in turn, that Bob was some kind of hypocrite monster, in a way that combined poisonously with his present legal indictment. It was not a good conversation in the house.

“You know all about this, Sheila,” Virgil said. “This was your bailiwick.”

Unfailingly satirical, Isobel asked, “Will there be space ships? On our land?” She was directing the question to Sheila, rather than to Virgil.

So, dredging it all up from within, she thought she would try to say what little she knew.

“NASA is very institutional-growth-oriented. NASA always has policy goals. NASA’s long-term goal is getting population off the planet.”

Seeing something outlandish coming, the wife stared in glassy despair.

“They really do want to export population. It’s just how they think.”

It was funny: the other two were looking almost slightly nettled, that she should know all about this. In fact, she had a very clear visual memory. It was a video on her computer, a downloadable thirty-second filmclip that came as an attachment for a conference call. In the filmclip, all the little chromosomes were lined up along the equator of a nucleus, ready to do their self-replicating, and then pull apart their weave. The telomeres were identified onscreen by a large floating cursor-arrow, like the red “SIGN HERE” arrows on financial documents they’d been confronting this year. In the filmclip, along the cell equator the chromosomes split into their mirror-images, chromatids firming up in their little bath of proteins.

She said, “We in North Liberty did reproductive cells. NASA is interested in regular cells. We got good at meiosis. Not mitosis. Different world.”

Isobel stopped merely staring and wailed, “I listen to ‘Science Friday,’” to protest how this news could have gotten past her. Always flippancy. Always a gag. The constant sarcasm, in fact, was actually a tip-of-the-iceberg among the reasons why Isobel would never be, for Sheila, completely erotic. There was no tender, patient unknowingness.

She said, “PBS did a thing about it. I bet right now we could go to their website.”

From the inner rooms arose a bang. It was an Indian harvest staff, its butt end striking the kitchen floor.

Virgil looked alarmed and Sheila reassured him, “Lupe’s got Milton. That’s Bob. He’s with his harvest staffs.”

“Sheila?” her stepfather presented himself in the doorway looking angry, wielding one of his polished wooden clubs, a slender elegant thing, almost as tall as himself. “I am no anarchist,” he told all three of them, grimly almost smiling, his eyes falling gently closed in confection of this proclaimed image of himself, a man who is not an anarchist. He was in his bib overalls. Under that, he wore no shirt, old male breasts showing, haircut box-shaped. Without a beard, his face was like a rubber President mask. As soon as the trial was over, first thing, back home in North Liberty she’d make him grow the beard back. Eyes still closed, he said, “I believe in capitalism.” Then he opened his eyes. “I’m the farthest thing from an anarchist.”

“Hi, Bob,” said Virgil.

“Hello, Bob,” said Isobel.

He surveyed them all, eyes bright.

Everybody knew Bob well enough: the purpose of his visit to the main house was not to rant about politics, it was to show off the new harvest staff.

“What a nice thing you have there,” Virgil grumbled – he plainly would rather have gone on talking about the NASA idea.

But Sheila wanted to try the idea out on Bob. Feed him some specifics. See how he might respond.

“My lawyers,” he said, “have been reading my books with the intention of twisting my kh-,” he closed his eyes, “twisting my ideas.”

If he were in a courtroom right now, he would have no stammer at all.

“I say repeatedly everywhere, what I want is capitalism. I just want better, real capitalism.” Seeing that his listeners were shrinking back, he did them the courtesy of lowering his wooden club. “I want you to t-tell them, Sheila. The words ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchist’ are not allowed in the proceedings.”

That put a cap on his short lecture. He was done. He lifted his staff and banged its heel on the slate floor.

Isobel asked: “What is that handsome-looking piece of wood?”

He looked at it, and he said, but still angrily, “It’s a Shakopee harvester. As opposed to an Ojibwa. Got a longer blade.” He choked it better and gave it a testing shudder. “You hit the rice-tops. Your canoe glides along and you whack like this, over the gunwale. So all the r-rice f-falls inside the canoe. Pretty soon, inside the canoe you’re sitting butt naked in a heap of rice.”

He obviously liked that picture.

“The rice,” Isobel suggested, “gets washed.”

“Bob, do you remember a conference on mitosis? Base excision? In chromatid mutations? It was NASA.”

For a minute he glared at her. These days he glared at everyone, with his clean flat face. “I don’t know anything about that. It’s NASA. NASA is their own little club. Their little culture. Their little gang.”

He swung around and left through the tiled corridor, a happy angry man, pleased with his disgust for NASA. She told herself there was no need for her constant heartache, the lawyers were so skilled, they could, with their storm of words, make all “blame” condense and fall from the atmosphere. Someday Bob would be back again in North Liberty working on hybrids under blue skies. Right now, at this moment, up there in the Sierra afternoon, under the dependable blue-all-day sky, the ranch gate was closed at the road by the caretaker, the sheds padlocked and shuttered against bears, irrigation systems drained, refrigeration shut down, beds all tarped or cover-cropped, nobody there to observe, the woodpeckers still sending their staccato over the canyons, solar panels generating redundant voltage.

Virgil spoke up, “…So.”

It was just the three of them again.

He said, “Guess what else,” going deeper into his preferred mode today: aggrievement. “My father had a secret life as a bigamist. There was another woman.”

This was a fresh subject indeed. Of course they wanted to hear more, but no more seemed forthcoming.

“Ha,” that was Isobel’s reaction. Isobel had known the old guy. Her forefinger started tapping her lip, her smiling lip. She said, “How could you think that?”

He went over and sat on the tall stool. “I was at the VA in Oakland to find his discharge. His death benefits were assigned to some woman. Woman I’ve never heard of.” His hand flipped out at the whole rest of the universe. “Absolutely never heard of.”

The three of them in the silent room looked at each other, while revised versions of history expanded around them at light-speed, then Isobel at last said, “Oh, Virgil, I hardly think so.”

Sheila, who’d never met him, spoke up suddenly, “What is it about your father? Was he neglectful? Or what?” – Many times she had heard the stories, about a man stingy and irresponsible and somehow contemptible.

Isobel sat up tall, “Poor Virgil, his father was…” she wedged her shoulders up extremely high, “…a saint! A monk!” She surprised herself with that sudden summary. But she delighted herself too. “He was like a hobo. He called himself a hobo. It was like having your own father be a homeless person, but right in your own neighborhood, going around where all your friends could see. That was it exactly. Virgil had a homeless person for a dad in the neighborhood.”

Sheila waited to see if Virgil was offended by this summary.

He looked back and forth between them. “This woman’s name was Pepper. But ‘Pepper’ isn’t a name. Why would you give your death benefits to someone who doesn’t even put down a legal name?”

Sheila said, “He was never abusive or violent? Or dishonest? Was he? Maybe he was undependable, in some way that amounted to dishonesty? Is that what the problem was? I just don’t see what was so bad about your father.”

Nobody cared to answer. Isobel at last sighed, “…No. He was dependable all right.”

Virgil said, “What is ‘Pepper’ short for? It’s just a spice.”

Isobel said, “Virgil, listen, your father was incapable of bigamy. I met him. He was not a bigamist. To be a ‘bigamist,’ you have to marry the other woman and be married both places. Besides, it seems to me I’ve noticed you have another woman on the premises.” She slid over on the loveseat and put one arm around Sheila.

“Yes, I’ve noticed another woman around here,” said Sheila. She nestled a place for herself under Isobel’s arm. As a joke, this was unfair to Virgil, too close a joke on the strange progress they’d made that morning in bed. By the small hand near her own breast, she was made sensually vulnerable, naturally, but in a way that was only automatic – because she was getting a new vision of the woman Isobel at her side, regarding her almost as if she were a complete stranger. Here the husband Virgil had brought them a personal scandal, from his own family life, which he found worrisome, and Isobel had dismissed it, like sending away a boring court-jester. She was so prodigious in eroticism because the world was remote to her. The world to her was unattainable, she would never really feel it, always the racy one, always the superficial one. In that way, the generous one, the lost one. It was something that began way back early in her life, somewhere back where she could never be saved. Back where it was always too late. How surface everything is: those were the magic words this morning that glazed everything over. Her little jest just now, I’ve noticed you have another woman on the premises, had finally an odd effect – it announced unmistakably that the love between the two women wasn’t serious, it was a kind of midpoint episode only. So Isobel’s terrible loneliness became palpable – and Sheila herself would be shaping up as an inconstant friend, coldhearted and young and ungrateful.

“You know something?” The woman’s thigh against Sheila’s stiffened as she sat up better. “In fact? Your father wasn’t even crazy. Your father was smart. A ‘saintly fool,’ that’s how he made himself out to be. He was sweet, Virge, but the first time I met your father, he introduced himself as a bum. That’s literally what he said, in the old living room in Terra Linda. He said, ‘Pleased to meet you, I’m a bum.’ Whoever the Pepper-person may have been, there was no adultery, I assure you, he wasn’t capable of adultery.”

Virgil was just looking bleakly out into the mist that is the world, seeing into it, or seeing past it.

Isobel then shrank back into place, “Anyhow, so go ahead. Refinance Artemisia County. Devote it to philanthropy. We don’t need the money. We have each other.”

There was always the possibility of facetiousness, but she actually seemed to mean that. It seemed sincere. Voicing any kind of earnest viewpoint, it was one more good sign this afternoon.

“However,” she was withdrawing her arm from Sheila’s shoulder, “I’m going to work now.” Her hand clipped the open gap in her smock – she was about to stand up – but then she stayed seated.

“We’ve already spent so much,” Virgil lamented. “They’re putting in a road. I have to go up and look at where they surveyed. Bulldozers. Bulldozers are supposed come already. It’s next month, and I have to go see it before they start.”

They both watched Virgil sitting on the tall stool. Just the word bulldozer seems to summon menace.

Isobel bounced taller. “Oh, Virgil, I have something. We’ll all go up, and we can camp literally in the woods.” – But she’d fastened her eyes deeply on Sheila describing this, signaling some kind of extra mischief. “There’s something called Palace Caravan you can call. They set up a campsite. It’s luxurious.”

She turned to her husband. “We’d camp right in the woods, instead of staying in that big motel and driving in. These campsite people, Palace Caravan, they go in and prepare everything ahead of you, drinks and food, a tent. Or a trailer or whatever you want. Full bar. It’s fancy. They bring in your firewood. But, Sheila, honey, really. Can we leave Bob? We can leave him with a babysitter or something.”

Virgil’s pointed out “Palace Caravan” sounded expensive. Isobel told him, what the hell, it can be a tax deduction for whoever ended up with the property, whether themselves or astronauts, or whoever. As for Sheila, in her own mind suddenly Palace Caravan seemed like just what they needed. Quite apart from Isobel’s implication of “luxury,” it sounded better than the Comfort Suites by the freeway. She hadn’t realized how much she was longing to be near big quiet trees and get out her lightweight boots. Also, considering everything, Bob would always be much happier here in his woodshop.

“Just us three, then,” Isobel said. She considered it settled. “Us three, all alone in the woods.”

Virgil, completely deaf to any innuendo in the room, came back, “If we permanently cut ourselves off from a big portion of the money, it isn’t something you do lightly. We might start regretting it. I’m just saying, suppose we just give half the fortune. Or a quarter. Whatever we decide on, the Artemesia development plan would be over with, in any scenario.”

Sheila’s own vote would inevitable. Let the biologists have it. Let them have all six hundred acres. Let cellular immortality research go forward. See if Bob takes an interest. So much money tended to be a meaningless amount, anyway. And they weren’t entrepreneurs, they didn’t know what they were doing, they weren’t of that class. Also, it was interesting, in labs people had been having certain successes, with certain organ tissues and epithelia. She could get up right this minute and do an internet search. The Seed Bank had kept its subscriptions paid-up on all its old data bases.

Virgil was complaining about the responsibilities of having money, and he came to the end of his thinking, “We’d be doing a good thing,” sounding hopeless.

Could that mean it was settled? He wasn’t getting any opposition. Faced with no resistance at all from his women, he sat there on the tall stool looking like he felt orphaned.

“Did you buy a banjo?” Isobel asked him.

He seemed confused, then dimly cheery. “Oh. A banjo.”

Sheila said, “You know I always hated banjo? I even hated the word banjo. Now I even love the word! Banjo. Banjo-banjo-banjo-banjo-banjo.”

Virgil was slipping down off the stool. He was going to retreat, probably heading for his thousand-milliliter carafe of water, his main solace – because all along, obviously he’d felt only dutiful about building thirty-six mansions. What he wanted was to fund the research campus. He was going to get something he actually wanted, and he hated that responsibility.

Heading for the door, he pulled something out of his pocket – it was a single styrofoam peanut – it was packing material – and he seemed confused by it. As if it were a pill he’d put off swallowing, he pocketed it again, going out of the room.

Isobel told him as he left, “Believe me, Virgil. There are no scandalous spicy intrigues to your old family.” Her eyes had gone back to join Sheila’s, while her voice followed Virgil through the house, “You’re well out of your past, Virgil. The future is where people live. Past is gone. Live in the future.”









The Future




But the past is the thing that can be saved. The future will always be insubstantial, and hectic; while every day a solid past fattens on the vine.

For what is eternity? What is this thing we wade at the floor of? Even in the immediate “present moment,” Terra Linda has already collapsed back to earth, back to decay, back to the Pleistocene dust exposed by the freeway excavation. The concrete-slab floor of Sears Tire and Automotive has long been reclaimed by the moving surf of earth. The Northgate Multiplex Cinema lies long in rubble, the freeway itself sunken beneath horizons of dirt, and the rodent’s light foot. The firmament has been folded up like a tent. Ages and aeons have tumbled together, upon the spot that was unique, where there was love, the bottommost porch-step, the moss at the cellar stair, the swing set’s shadow.

But here always in Angels’ care are the annals, the annals infinitely branching, where every instant radiates all history. So there will have been, once, a Virgil Sproehnle. A complete moral being. Everywhere on Mischal’s darkroom floor, cartons of reels lie open. Heaps of omitted film lie in crisp brambles. Under the workbench, snipped bits of celluloid get kicked into a kind of drift against the wall. If ever the Angel needs to get up and locate a new reel, he travels across the floor doubled-over by an ache in the middle. Cigarettes seem to offer the promise of settling the stomach, yet they embitter it the more. And yet a new cigarette keeps coming to hand. For the inevitable Everlasting Day advances. And the inevitable light of Redemption will go forward, tho’ the darkness comprehendeth it not.

What’s locked on the screen before him is Pepper Caine, wearing her old baggy black tank suit for swimming, the woman herself when she was alive (“Iona Louise [‘Pepper’] Caine, Capri Apartments, 1982.”), in her kitchen holding a puffed-rice disk. She’s thinking of her old father in a Santa Rosa facility. She’s thinking that all life is as the Hindus say: misery. Misery and delusion, in ten thousand disguises. And she’s thinking that she personally always did inflict misery. Inflict permanent damage. New York and Montreal. Haight-Ashbury, Sacramento, Evanston, New York again. Serious irreparable mortal harm wherever she went.

The Guardians of Pepper Caine (1940-1995) must have been powerful Angels. The reels of film all bear the Interdiction seal.[30] In the image  onscreen, she has added something long-sleeved over the bathing suit because she never liked having to see the old scars, even when she was home alone by herself.

One weightless puffed-rice disk is in her hand. She pops a can of calorie-free Tab. The summer sound of car radio music – oh it’s 1982 indeed – rises from the street below, where some local boy’s pickup truck cruises past. This, 1982, was the summer of fresh influxes of small Japanese pickups, the summer of girls’ stonewashed jeans, a brilliant high summer. A glaring strip of noontime sunshine is striking Pepper’s kitchen table, for this is the zenith hour, before the eclipse by the freeway-overpass shadow. An old Angel who watches must admit admiration and wonder, for a good thing, a life, the handiwork of Angels: a freshly opened Tab’s bitter fume, the old porcelain sink drain’s sour breath, the ragged buzz of the electric kitchen clock, the suntan oil, the comfort of crumbs under bare soles: everything conspires, everything floods together, to uphold and sustain. She picks up the phone and dials.

First she’ll talk to her father – then climb into the pool at the shallow end and do her mild swimming routine, back and forth, old-lady-like, like parting curtains – then dress for work. Today she cleans Mrs. Smithson’s house in Sausalito and Mrs. Barcarelli’s in San Rafael. She can tell by a click in the phone’s ringing, the call has been forwarded, past the attendants’ station, straight to her father’s room.

Then her eye is caught. Outside, down the street, it’s Ed. She’s positive. The loose heavy shoes, the trousers belted high, crossing Harbor at the corner by the QuickStop. What’s wrong? He’s gone out of sight already. But in one glimpse, she was sure.

He’s in her neighborhood, passing through, and not stopping to visit.

The last time he came was a few months ago, when he borrowed her car because he wanted to use it on a fishing trip with his son. But then the fishing trip failed, for a number of causes (mostly the fact that his son, Virgil, has reached a sullen adolescence and, for example, insisted on wearing zippered boots of black suede, for a fishing trip), and Ed is so sensitive, he lets things defeat him. In her closet she’s been saving gifts, accumulating there since winter: a faux-sheepskin jacket for him (which she sometimes takes out and puts on herself, liking how it’s too big), a supersize bottle of vitamins, a crystal he can hang at home that will make rainbows on the floor. She’s never been to Ed’s new place, but she imagines a cement floor: it’s a storage locker after all.

Meanwhile, in her ear, the phone keeps ringing from her father’s faraway room – and while it’s ringing, she refrains from biting into the noisy rice cake. This kind of eating, it’s only another form of impatience and restlessness, restlessness her liveliest companion, an old junkie never gets used to it, the restlessness most people are able to treat as tolerable baseline normalcy, restlessness first reacquainted during her time at the Napa rehab clinic, with its carrot-sticks and celery-sticks in the dayroom, and paper cups of tap water, excess health, feeding only impatience, excess life, excess oxygen. The disk of puffed rice hovers, but she doesn’t want to be crunching audibly, in case her father picks up the phone.

What she wants is to hang up and run out, and run down the street and catch Ed and find out what’s wrong. If something is wrong.

The phone clicks. Then for a while, the interlude of fumbling.

“Dick Caine,” he says as if he were back in his office twenty years ago.

“Good morning, Dad. It’s me. Pepper.”

“What can I do for you.”

“Remember we’re going to go for a drive today? You like driving through the vineyards.”

He takes a breath in irritation. “Your mother was here.”

If anyone was there, it was probably the floor attendant.

“Are you sure it was Mom? Because, Dad? I guess that must be pretty great! – if Mom has been visiting you.”

“Of course it was her. We argued. Life is too short to argue.”

“What did you and this person argue about?” Pepper pulls out a kitchen chair and sits down, propping her bare legs opposite and enjoying the sight of the general wreck, liking how the inner thigh collapses, maybe even glorying in it, how the bathing suit withers, the forearm skin loosening, and the cobwebs where the needle stung and stung, in Montreal, where the veins went away, and during the Haight-Ashbury days and down on St. Mark’s in New York when Ian used to take all the money because he wanted to buy a Moog synthesizer, but especially the winter months in Montreal. To waste and despoil, you don’t have to be a drug addict, just look at her father, cheered today by his annoyance with an imaginary wife, the woman he belittled all her life. And look at her two customers for today, Mrs. Barcarelli and Mrs. Smithson, stranded in their houses, who always wait for her to show up, and make tea for her and coerce her into taking long breaks. They’re more her weekly therapy patients than housecleaning clients. So if, for mortals, there’s no such thing as understanding, then how beautiful is the husk that remains: her leg-flesh, her wrist-flesh.

Her father, having reached deep in his imagination, comes up with an answer, “We argued over Pepper. The usual thing.”

A subject to skip over.

“Have they given you your whirlpool bath?”

The old man draws a long breath, not wanting to depart the topic of the daughter he couldn’t save, love of his life, thief of his wealth. “I’ll be coming over later, Dad,” she says, speaking in this afterlife she could never have predicted for herself, this Marin County, in one of the drive-past suburbs you normally only see the roofs of, with its strip malls, the vast heat as you get further inland, the overwide boulevards, here where a nicer, sweeter kind of man is, and all the women radiate power, suburban women, mistrustful of the old whore they can still sense, the old unfair player. Women friends have been hard to make in Marin, except for her housecleaning customers, who, in their kitchens, apply themselves guardedly to acquaintanceship, then start plunging into confidences.

“Dad?” she says.

With the thought of the unrescuable girl, the old man’s mind tends to clog. The phone-line silence sizzles higher. All AT&T listens – to the chaotic silence, the old man’s angry confusion.

“Dad, I’ll come over later and we’ll take our drive in the country. Okay? I have to work. I have a couple jobs. And then I’ll come up and get you. It’ll be about five o’clock.”

“I refuse to send money.”

“Say, Dad,” she resorts to what always works. “Did you happen to see the Blackhawks play the Maple Leafs?”

He takes in a breath and holds it. The game was thirty years ago, but to Dick Caine it’s smelling-salts. She can picture him, beside the high adjustable bed, standing in his telephone posture, head sharply ducked, his cantaloupe-colored room, the door always open to the corridor so the staff can see.

“Hull at the blue line?” she prompts him.

“Hay at the net,” he snaps – he begrudges its being drawn from him.

“Hull to…?”

“To Hay to Vasco-for-the-slapshot. That’s it. You got it,” he admits. “That Bobby Hull, he’s a gentleman, not like the new guys. I’m glad you saw that game, young lady. That was a hell of a game. You watched it with me, didn’t you?”

She’s decided anyway she will run out and see if Ed is still out there.

She starts finishing off, “Now, I love you, Dad, so do what the dietician says,” commencing the formula, patting him back down, “Do your stretches. Spend some time in the parakeets’ room. I’ll see you at four. Take care, now. I love you.” He makes his goodbye sound and he hangs up.

Probably Ed is long gone. But she goes to the windowpane.

Straining to see, she is a woman framed in a second-story window, one of those Hindu goddesses, the erotic destroyer-of-worlds goddess, rice cake in one hand, can of Tab in the other, who now must descend to action. First to find a nicer shirt to cover her arms. In the very first days of their affair, she got her hooks into him by stretching the truth and implying her tuberculosis would kill her in a year or two. It wasn’t a great exaggeration, and she could see the chink in Ed Sproehnle’s armor. Love does depend on a lie sometimes, or even frequently, or, maybe, always. And now that she does have (it’s an oddly satisfying way to think of it) “her hooks into him,” she will continue forever to have the sense of holding a live, twitching line, no matter how he roam. The kimono is on the chair, and she pulls it on, instead of the shirt; it has a side pocket for the handkerchief. And a handkerchief already wadded in there.

She finds her flip-flops. The big raffia-straw hat will suffice, and she goes outside on the long balcony above the pool, and hurriedly down the stairs that riffle underfoot like Fate’s deck of cards. The risk is, she’ll annoy him, stalking after him, she’ll look like the apparition of the neglected mistress, plastic sandals, kimono fluttering after. But there was something visibly wrong. His walk, crossing the street, had no lightness to it, it was heavy, it was somehow careful. Carefulness has never been in Ed’s way of walking. He’s certainly careful in mind, but when he walks ordinarily he flies along, whipping his gimp along.

Down Harbor Boulevard, what lies in that direction? There are only auto repair shops and he doesn’t own a car. Body-and-fender places, car stereo places. After that, there’s only the old railroad bed, then the vacant lot under 101’s pillars.

If she does find him, she might have to call and postpone Barcarelli and Smithson, both.

Mrs. Smithson won’t care. Her house never needs anything but dusting, her children are all gone, and they – understandably! – never come home or even phone. And her husband is never home, he isn’t even out loving somebody else, he’s just staying away. She only keeps Pepper on because she needs a confidante. She only wants to sit in the large kitchen and boast about her wealth and her expenditures and her cruelty and negligence and waste, until Pepper grants her weekly absolution.

As for Barcarelli in San Rafael, that house does get dirty, and she does depend on Pepper. Their relationship is more superficial, though she makes occasional efforts to raise Pepper’s social consciousness. For which Pepper tries to show the right gratitude, as well as sudden reformation. Mrs. Barcarelli’s suburban liberalism decrees that Pepper’s “misfortunes” in life have been caused by men and male chauvinism – an idea that hits precisely at the truth, because she always did love the beauties and the liars – Ed Sproehnle being surely the first decent, conscience-stricken man she’s ever wanted to turn her serious attention to, now that she’s been granted this second life in Marin County while her lungs seem to take forever to break up in tubercles, and her toes are amputated, one-by-one, though still enough toes remain to get a grip on her flip-flops. Remission is the word for what she’s in. A strange funny word.

There he is.

Between the QuickStop and a cinderblock retaining-wall is a space for a Dumpster. There’s Ed, sitting on a milk crate of the old metal kind, wearing the tweed suit jacket she got for him at Goodwill; and she can see; she’s going to have to cancel Smithson and Barcarelli, both. And possibly cancel her father’s drive in the country, because this qualifies as an emergency. How could he get so drunk so fast? He must have been drunk a few minutes ago when he crossed the intersection – but he certainly seemed to walk straight then – and he wasn’t, then, carrying a bottle. She can see the jug: it’s almost half gone. And it’s her brand, “Las Cuidadas.” So maybe he did have a plan, to come visit her place. He looks now like he can’t move. The man gave up drinking years ago, and now he’s drunk at noon. In this heat in that wool jacket. It’s the nice suit jacket, pinkish herringbone tweed from Goodwill, with a coat-of-arms sewn on the breast where two tennis racquets are crossed. He’s looking right at her, but in his eye, a general smear doesn’t change the slightest bit. He is gazing into a dream-hallucination of her approach. In an inexplicably arrived coquettishness she re-wraps the kimono better. “Hi,” she says.

He seems to think for a minute about hi.

Then – as if hi were a reminder of a world of duty he’d neglected – he widens his eyes, his dried-up blue eyes, today infused by a kind of carroty juice, and he sighs.

She sits down beside him in the cinders of asphalt, the thin rayon of her kimono. She’s a head lower because he’s on his milk-crate throne.

She looks out, to see everything he sees. Beckstrom Auto Repair. Moullare Paint and Glass. The immense windowless back wall of Marin Leisure.

“What’s cookin’,” she says, beside him.

It’s good she wore the hat. Whenever sun strikes the top of her head, the open dollar there burns. Sitting here, it’s like being a kid again with Ed – the pavement against her butt-knobs through the kimono. A parked car’s brutal windshield aims a bomb of sunshine, steadily, at a spot behind her eyes, so the daily neighborhood headache will be coming on. The light doesn’t seem to bother Ed, not in the midst of the desert he’s created around himself. This sadness has something to do with his family. His family is the vulnerability in his life, little manipulative surly Virgil, long-suffering Evelyn. Today he is better dressed than usual, wearing socks. And tweed in this midday heat. The jug screw-top is nowhere to be seen. Candy litter, cigarette cellophane, an ice-cream-bar wrapper, all lie in eternity in somebody else’s childhood. A fan belt in the remote weeds. A toppled Safeway shopping cart. A few dusty Gummi Worms were scattered long ago, by a child, in that child’s eternity.

“Partying!” she remarks, of the wine jug. “Excellent.” The old substance-abuse counselor at work again. In the dayroom at Napa she used to plop down on the couch beside a new, sniveling junkie and say, for openers, It only gets worse. O, that old cracked-vinyl couch in the dayroom. On that couch, a number of people met up with their worst selves. She was the midwife who conjured them wriggling and snarling from their slime.

Ed’s head is curiously tilted. It’s cute, it’s like the RCA Victor dog who peers into the gramophone.

The paradox of this neighborhood: it’s peaceful while noisy. A big truck goes past, slowly, carrying a bulldozer on a trailer. It vibrates the ground she’s sitting on. Then with an explosion of its air-brakes, it pulls through the stop sign and goes up Harbor.

“How’ve you been?” she says.

He thinks first and then he answers, “Pretty good!” dawningly, as if he meant it – as if, objectively, things were in fact excellent on the whole, if you have the knack of aligning your vision a certain way.

Referring to his fancy clothes, she says, “Where’ve you been?”

But he answers, “Oh. Keepin’ busy,” – because he doesn’t get it. He thinks she’s referring to his months’ absence from her life. Ed is a man who will always feel remiss, always. “The usual,” he elaborates.

“Let’s not party here.” It’s her voice from the days on 42nd Street. “Let’s party back at my place, where we can be comfortable.” Out here he’ll get a drunk’s sunburn. He needs to lie down. He needs a drink of water and some food.

But the idea of partying back at her place has sent him into despair. His glance has started scurrying back and forth. Whatever this is, it’s serious.

It’s not a death. The death of, even, a son or a wife wouldn’t cause despair like this. This is something you can’t merely weep over.

If it’s not grief, it’s more like dread. Dread of what? Even if you’ve just learned from a doctor that you’re about to die, you don’t fall apart like this. This is something worse than death: It must be life. The thing itself. Everything you can’t take back anymore.

“Come on, honey, let’s go. We shouldn’t sit like this.”

He’s willing, but not right now, not just yet.

She says, “Been to see your family? How’s Virgil? I bet he’s grown an inch or two.”

The one time she met Virgil, he was an unhappy, displeased young man, teetering on his heeled zippered suede boots, pants so tight he could hardly move, resenting being taken on a fishing expedition by his dad.

Ed, though, is smiling about something, and at last he says, “I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

“I wet my pants.”

It’s only a half-block from here to the cool shadows of the freeway overpass and the Capri carports, leading to the sanctuary of the central courtyard swimming pool.

“I’ll help you.”

“I just… don’t have a plan,” he admits. He means an immediate plan of evacuation.

“Well, let’s sit a while. Good thing I got my sunhat. Maybe I’ll go in and buy us an Evian water. Did you know I got Farouk to start stocking Evian water? Just for me? Because I couldn’t stand the Crystal Geyser? It took a lot of flirting, over the months. Farouk is no pushover.”

She looks around. This is her home neighborhood, for the time being. “Actually, Farouk is a pushover.”

Ed, wearing that tweed jacket in this heat, huddles as if he were cold. Whatever the scare is, he’ll get over it.

Because you have to get over things. Because if you don’t, you don’t. And also because, now, she’s here – and she’s the legendary seraph, she’s the one they used to call “Novo” Caine in the Port Authority Terminal. Also, Ed happens to possess a certain amount of inner equipment, to get over things. Which is something Pepper is able to discern, because she certainly did have plenty of inner equipment. She had equipment to burn, and resources of all kinds – and burn it she did. Went through it all. Everything of any worth, up in smoke. After that, she was fine. Been fine ever since. It’s another way the Hindus are right.

If Ed ever does move on, and no longer need her – then she won’t have to stay in Marin anymore. There is an imaginary place she’s been sketching lately in watercolor, a cottage with some green shadow that could be fruit-trees, and she always wanted a place in the country, a kitchen garden, a back door that lets sunshine in on the floor. It’s the main drawback of her apartment here: there’s only one door. A proper home has a front and a back door.

And now she has a premonition, Ed won’t want her anymore. Not after this. Whatever this is, it’s something too awful. She’ll help him over it, then he’ll never want to come back. He will have left some kind of stain he’ll be ashamed of.

She says, “Tell me, what is bothering you, my good man?”

And so begins the end of her little sojourn here in Marin.

He makes no sign of having heard.

Then he stands up – and lurches to get a grip on the dumpster.

“Okay, let’s get you home to my house.” She gets up. “Want a hand?”

As he stands, his shoes are cemented in place but his body is blurring in and out, anchored by one hand on the dumpster. The seat of his pants is wet. Also stuck to the seat of his pants is a yellow Post-It note. She plucks it off.

Message from fate, it’s blank on both sides. She commits a bit of forgivable littering and lets it fall down with the Gummi Worms and the discarded fan belt and everything else dismissed and unheeded. “Let’s give you the whole deluxe treatment. Nice shower. Some rest. I’ll make a grilled cheese. Later we’ll get you in the old hot tub. Rent a movie maybe. Today is R-and-R.”

He launches away and sets out walking with a steadiness she didn’t think he was capable of. She remembers the wine jug but it’s too hard to collect it – she’ll have to leave it as a problem for Farouk, an uncapped jug on the front curb. The distance is almost a block from here to the Capri, while she follows along beside him, sticking close, a girlfriend in the sun in a straw hat. Now that he’s moving he doesn’t look drunk. “I was over there. And the goat got out.” He adds, “Or got in.”

“What goat, baby?”

“I got ’em a goat to keep the weeds down. But there was a social worker there. She chewed through the rope and came in the house. So I just left.”

“Let’s go ’cross under, through the parking lot, babe.” She has an arm around his waist steering him to the shadows.

He admits (and it’s part of an inner conversation): “It’s just me.”

She waits. But he’s not going to elaborate. That’s the whole thought.

“You got a goat for Evelyn and Virgil. What a good idea. Where’d you get the goat?”

Ed says, “A guy.” It would be somebody at the Dump.

It’s cooler when they get inside the carport shade. The swimming pool’s square oasis is smooth because today’s a school day: no little pint-sized Espositos or McCartys to trouble the water. She guides him under the balcony, to the staircase, swings him around to the first step, and supervises while he lifts his heavy shoe – those armored wingtips he favors, from Goodwill, their toecaps perforated in swirly patterns – and he does a careful job of mounting the sixteen cement slabs, up to the second story, one step at a time swallowing each new rise in altitude.

If a social worker visited his home in Terra Linda, it means there is some new legal barrier. Something permanent has happened between him and his family.

It’s a thought to make her feel lighter-than-air with the intake of responsibility. At the top of the stairs, she swings him around, along the balcony railing – past Mrs. Mack’s “THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING” doormat – toward her own place, where the front door stands open still.

She gets him straight into the kitchen, to land him on a chair.

She says, kneeling, “Gotta get your shoes off.”

The kitchen is hot from the sun. The living-room bed will be cooler.

“See that water? Drink a little now.”

He revolves his fallen head and sees the ribbed plastic Evian, half-full. The sight of it makes him sad, as if water is the strangest, most mistaken thing on earth. But he grips the bottle and lifts it and starts drinking, his fine noble neck working.

“Can you stand up? I want to run the shower over you. And get these clothes off.”

She takes his arm, but he climbs down to the floor – ponderously heavy for such a slight man. It’s time to take a nap, right here on the kitchen floor. She might have almost gotten a grip on him. But he uses the remnants of her embrace to sag and drape himself out, spread himself down, and he pulls his knees up, pillowing his head on an arm. He can take a shower later. Let him sleep on the floor. Piss himself the more, if he needs to, or vomit. Vomiting would be the best thing.

The phone is right there. She hits redial – and while it sings its ten-digit song to summon her father, she lifts her warm Tab.

He answers the phone right away, and he demands, “Where are you?”

“Dad, I think I won’t be able to come today. I have a friend I have to take care of.”

“I can imagine. In some phone booth.”

“Dad, I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

“You can just stop trying to inform us where you are.”

“I’m right here in San Rafael. You’ve seen my apartment. You’ve visited here. You bought me the nice new tires. Remember?”

He’s confused now. His navigation system is swinging. He’s going to fight against this new information.

She adds, “We renewed my Triple-A membership.”

“You were in Montreal with that drummer,” he accuses her.

“That was a long time ago, Dad. Today I’m just calling to say I won’t be visiting. You and I were going to go for a drive in the country this afternoon.”

Only silence.

Faintly, she can hear offstage chat, the nursing staff, in Hillcrest’s peaceful corridor.

“Dad, I’ll see you tomorrow. Now, I love you, so be good and do what the dietician tells you. Go visit the parakeets’ room.” And tossing, once more, the shovelful of soil, “Take care, Dad.”

After a short silence, he says, “I’ll get back to you.” Then he hangs up.

And so it will happen, that she may begin to think of the cottage in the green shadows, with a back door, where the sunlight enters. Because her time in Marin County might be over. Sonoma would be nearer her father. And Sonoma would have that cottage, somewhere off the main street. Ed will sleep the afternoon away. She’ll phone Mrs. Barcarelli and Mrs. Smithson. Hopefully – ideally – at both houses she’ll reach only answering machines. While Ed sleeps under the kitchen table, she has some ironing she can do. She’ll bring out her watercolors and paint the cottage again.

Ed will be too heavy to move. Not for a good long time. He lies exactly as he first rolled down. The whole scene is distinctly familiar, because, more than once, in cities forgotten, she has laid men out on kitchen floors, like Ian in Montreal after his medicine. There are always dishes to do, in these situations. What remains is the characteristic slipping handhold, the supplicant at the rim of the lifeboat succumbing to the cold, the loosening grip, something out of a big old oil-painting she saw once in the Met or the Art Institute or somewhere, of drowning multitudes.


Later, when the shade of the freeway has moved over the whole swimming pool, she stands at the sink and finishes up, at last facing up to the iron pan. Ed is right outside the front door, dressed, sitting on the lawn chair.

He’d lain without moving for most of the afternoon on the floor, while she went around picking up the house. When she needed to run out to QuickStop, she came back to find him lying just the same way. He slept while she got out her colors and taped down the paper and made a picture, the same imaginary cottage, the colors bleeding nicely into unthought-of margins, which turned out to be lilacs, in the shadow of what could be a neighbor’s garage. While she worked, she left the television playing, and a rerun of “Sesame Street” flickered at the rim of her attention, the little puppets singing songs of praise to letters of the alphabet, the utterly convinced children conversing with hand-animated socks, cartoons where numerals wheeled and careened and flared and pulsed. When Ed stirred, she went into the kitchen to find him sitting up.

And she got him into the shower, and meanwhile cooked a grilled-cheese sandwich. Which he ate, steadily, without speaking, his hair all nice-combed. Then while her back was turned, she found he had gone outside the front door to sit on the folding chair against the wall. While her steel wool pad in its blue soapsuds scours the pan, she decides maybe he might like to soak for a while in the hot tub. She’d tried offering him one of her world-famous deluxe massages, but he said no thanks. His own undeserving has always been Ed’s principle gift to the world – almost some form of hospitality he has practiced here.

“Ed?” she calls toward the front door. “It’s time for you to go down in the hot tub. See if it still works. Check it out.”

Her jug of wine is beside him out there. He hasn’t been drinking out of it. But she’s keeping an eye on it – because she knows about habits. If he has no desire for wine now, that’s one thing. But if he wants to start drinking right away, that’s another thing.

Whatever his fear or dread is, it’s something he will have to go straight through. And probably come out the other side smaller. Some incident at home involving “a social worker” has made him see how things are. It’s doubtless a legal divorce. Poor tired Evelyn, married to a man who kept ruining her hopes, her small hopes.

She goes over to see. He’s sitting out there with a laxity in his shoulders totally unlike him. Also unlike him is his costume. He is wearing a pair of sweatpant cut-offs of hers that happened to fit well enough. And an old T-shirt advertising the Mill Valley Art Festival. In the lawn chair he’s inert, his whole body is dead, but his eyes roam and roam inside a limited small box.

All bound up inside for him, she sneaks away and goes back to the kitchen to – what – dry off the pan and put it away. But then he moves. The chair creaks. He heaves himself out of it and – cradling the jug with the left arm he favors – he starts walking along the balcony.

She goes out to see. His legs are strong and beautiful despite the gimp, in her silly cut-offs. Down the staircase to the pool area, he carries the jug – it’s still full, he hasn’t had a swallow – for some reason he brought out a fresh unopened one. The yellow-metal cap is uncracked. He’s no alcoholic.

He’s headed for the hot tub. She’ll give thirty-days’ notice here at The Capri. There’s a town she’s driven through many times. It’s at the northernmost reach of the wine-growing area just outside Sonoma, a touristy place, but with an agriculture economy that’s old and fundamental. There’s a schoolhouse with a bell-steeple, and a main street with a bookstore and one of those Carnegie public libraries. It would be good to volunteer at the library, or at the school. Or, perhaps not at the school, because they’d get a whiff and distrust a former addict. Over time, living behind her picket fence, she would become a well-liked old lady in a limited place. She would miss the Esposito children here, but there would be new friends. With her, neighboring children are always the first emissaries. The sidestreets off the main street have no curbs. Hollyhocks. Old lilacs and fruit trees. In passing through, over the years, it’s a place she’s been putting a spell on.

Ed, below, arrives at the rim of the hot tub. He seems to view it with his maintenance man’s eye. Keeping the pumps running was always a recurrent annoyance; draining and refilling it; adjusting its chemistry to reduce the scum vying at the rim. When he was the maintenance man here, he never did slip into it just to enjoy himself, he was always under it, replacing leaky sections of pipe, applying fiberglass tape to seams, cleaning the filter. She used to bring him lemonade-plus-Tab.

He lowers one foot into the water, testing its temperature.

Then he sets down the jug. She’s keeping an eye on all this through the screen door.

He leaves the T-shirt on, and he slides into the water the body kept knotty from all his days hauling trash into the paths of bulldozers. The water surface seems to wring his form, as he feeds himself in, then he settles down, his arms lifting and gathering the top layer of the water like a bedquilt. Then he swings his head.

The switch, to turn on the jets, is on the far wall.

She watches while he hauls himself out again, to cross the cement and twist the timer-dial. It’s like he’s sleepwalking. He’s brokenhearted. So maybe he’ll be all right. He will never get around to uncapping that jug of wine, he’ll just carry it around. Red wine (so-called “Burgundy”) is the last thing he’ll want. She comes out, further down the railing to see better.

The underground motor starts humming. Before the pump kicks in, he shambles back, dripping, to immerse himself again. But he remembers the wine, and before getting in the tub, he tosses the jug into the middle, where it makes a great splash. Maybe he thought it would float – and it does float for a minute. While he climbs back in, the jug starts to sink – heavier than the water – visible as it sinks.

The water is transparent because the jets haven’t started firing yet. There’s always a delay, while the pumps rumble. She watches in some uncertainty – over whether to intervene at all – as the jug sinks at a steady rate. Ed, on the underwater concrete bench, submerged now to his armpits, sits there watching the jug fall beyond his grasp. When it does touch the floor, it does come apart, with a clank sound. The globe of color expands underwater, along with glinting knives of glass, a little galaxy being born.

It’s at that point that the pump – which had been rumbling – starts to roar, and the jets start firing. She can hear the pump chewing glass. So the galaxy will be reborn in a spiral. The diamonds will churn through the system. The jets will grind them up and spit them out, and they’ll whirl again.

So she deserts her perspective and gets moving, to go down and turn off the jets, marriage wrecker where she has alighted. If he keeps sitting still, he’ll be all right. He’ll only be cut if he moves against the bench or the walls. The little diamonds will maybe rough him up but not bite deep. She’s not going to sprint. She’ll get there fast enough, fast as a nurse, the way you had to move on Forty-Second when vice officers show up, where the rule was always Just be a pedestrian. Move away but be a pedestrian. Also they’d say, too, Walk like an Egyptian. After today, Ed will never be back. So she’s done with him. The pump’s engines will grind the glass to a thousand stars abrasive but not cutting. And he, too, knows he’ll be fine. He’s watching the whirl knowing if he can just be still, he’ll be all right.









Meanwhile, A Quarter-Century Later




Twenty-some years later, the only person in the world with any awareness Pepper Caine had ever existed was a certain Virgil Sproehnle. It struck him as an instance of how insignificant, basically, a whole life is. In the passage of a just few years – (that is, if you’re typical; if you’re not like a Joseph Stalin or a Jimi Hendrix or a Captain Kangaroo) – a life will be buried in complete forgottenness and oblivion, you might say meaninglessness.

Partly just for amusement he’d called a private investigator, who came back after a week saying that there were no records of a person named Pepper Caine anywhere. He’d searched all the usual places, school systems, the DMV, the social-security database. Her legal name, in any case, probably wasn’t Pepper. Except for that one appearance on a Veterans Affairs form, no memory of her existed anywhere on earth, so that she might as well not have ever lived – until today. Because a clear recollection came back to Virgil. It was a visual memory of the woman herself. He’d met her.

It came to him while he was riding south toward Palo Alto. Everybody was in the car. He hadn’t wanted to drive – Isobel was actually stepping up and driving – Sheila in the backseat with Bob and the baby. The dashboard radio, at a low volume, was going on about astronomers’ new deep-space telescopes – when suddenly in memory he saw Pepper Caine. It was very distinct. She was a skinny woman in sunshine wearing a big loose-knitted yarn cap that was swollen in a sagging blob, who spoke in a slurred smile, whose amethyst eyes melted with infatuation at everything she looked upon, weirdly hump-backed from some osteoporosis or scoliosis or something that had shrunken her, her body below the waist curling into a wisp, like a scorpion-tail. Or like the mist attaching a genie to its lamp. She seemed to want to reach out and pet. The memory was clear: she was on the grassy median strip of a freeway in Marin County. And Virgil’s father was present. And her car was there: a white Volkswagen Rabbit. They were all stranded on the median strip for some reason.

Virgil turned to Isobel’s profile and said, “I remember meeting my father’s – ”

Mistress wasn’t the word, and he turned away, to watch the roadside go past. In the open, green spaces of Palo Alto stood occasional tall pumps making see-saw motions. They weren’t oil rigs, they were relieving pressure along an earthquake fault. A tectonic plate was being gently eased northward, lubricated by water-pressure. Little so-called Milton Sproehnle, citizen of the future, gurgled and quacked in the backseat, slapping the armrest while guzzling breastmilk bug-eyed.

Isobel prompted him (though everybody would have a pretty good guess what he was getting at), “Your father’s…?”

National Public Radio droned on, “A black hole is not visible to the naked eye. However, like a drain in space, it sucks in the loose matter of its neighboring star. The process tends to make the partner star incandesce. In this way, we can detect the invisible singularity by the magnificent, really splendid appearance of its neighbor being broken up and sucked burning into the vacuum.”

“The woman who got his death benefits,” said Virgil. “I actually met her once.”

Then nobody wanted to pursue it. As if it weren’t the most fascinating breakthrough.

Sheila in the backseat said, “Next exit is Moffett Field.” She had finished nursing Milton and she was settling him in his car seat. “Get off and you’ll see signs for Ames Research Center.” She turned to her stepfather: “Remember? Look familiar?” – It was forgivable if Sheila couldn’t care about a rediscovered old memory. Much of her energy today would be devoted to holding her stepfather steady.

She’d insisted on bringing him. The visit to NASA, it was thought, could be therapeutic, because for a day, people might seem to take him seriously again. Virgil was against it. Bob would be irrelevant to the actual discussions, embarrassingly. Also, he could be obstreperous. During the past week, whenever the topic came up, all he did was scoff. His lowest insult was careerism, and the NASA crowd were all careerists and cynical opportunists, in his view, because – (this was the actual truth of the situation) – Bob Newton himself had shrunken, under indictment, into a captured dwarf, unable to find a publisher, who every day foraged, literally foraged in the San Francisco neighborhood. Virgil feared he would come home one day with a couple of sidewalk pigeons, having wrung their necks, and start plucking them on the kitchen counters explaining that the French do this all the time. It hadn’t happened yet. But it would probably happen. It was built into the situation. Dead pigeon on the counter. Straight from Union by the bus-stop curb. It was inevitable. He ought to have been left back home today in his workshop. He himself, Bob, hadn’t wanted to come. But then he’d allowed himself to be brought along, because like a child he didn’t actually know what he wanted.

Midday over Silicon Valley. The blast of noon, the murkiness of noon sunlight – it was like a dream, as dreamy as history all around. He would say nothing more about his memory of the woman “Pepper Caine” on a Marin median strip so long ago. Isobel and Sheila might be willing to hear more. But there was nothing else.

The few specific details – a white compact car, spray-bottles and buckets and mops in back, the woman’s rubber thong-sandals – didn’t add up to much, other than the fact of the woman’s existence.

He gave up and just watched the steel barrier railing as it rode past, its posts standing in gray roadside dust, gray the color of final ultra-refinement, the future of us all, the color of siftedness. On faraway dead moons, the dust will be the same color. The great mounded grief of roadsides, of roadsides everywhere, heaved up in Virgil’s chest. The “Mrs. Caine” in his memory was a woman thin and hipless in blue jeans. She reached out and petted Virgil in an awe-stricken lovingness which Virgil at that age found scary. Why were they all standing on a median strip? She had no right to touch him, she wasn’t his aunt or anything.

“I was probably fifteen or sixteen, and she was definitely an odd-looking person,” he told his new family in the car in the much-improved future. What was a boy to make of a father whose lady friend had some coughing disease so that she always needed a handkerchief? The handkerchief had old brown stains. “Oh jeez,” he said aloud in misery within Isobel’s and Sheila’s hearing.

He added – because he had to say something – “Her eyes were huge. Her mouth” (like some aging male rock star) “was weird.”

Isobel swerved into a VISITOR PARKING space.

“I’ll park here,” she said. “We’re visitors.”

Virgil breathed deep to dispel the mound. People didn’t want to talk about it because Bob was in the car. This wasn’t the moment. Isobel turned off the car and everybody sat there. She’d driven well. This was her first time at the wheel of a car in maybe a year. They’d trapped her into it, by a kind of checkmate maneuver, back at home in the garage when they were leaving – Sheila entering the backseat, Virgil getting in on the passenger side – so only the driver’s seat was left. And Isobel had hopped right in. It was like a chess maneuver, but an inadvertent one; nobody planned it; and nobody mentioned the development aloud; and she drove the whole trip with unselfconscious authority. So there was a good thing.

NASA – at least at this part of it – was an ordinary office building. With a tall address made of brushed-steel numerals. He let himself out of the car, bogged down by nausea, ethical nausea. All memory felt like regret, all experience simply mistakenness, different kinds of mistakenness. – The woman Pepper Caine on the median strip had been somehow rescuing Virgil and his father. Rescuing them from some misadventure typical of Ed Sproehnle.

Silicon Valley: hotter than San Francisco. In the back seat, the famous scientist and terrorist/sabateur Robert Newton groped unsuccessfully for a door handle to free himself. Meanwhile his daughter Sheila – the budding geneticist! – was so excited about being here, she left everybody behind, including her own baby in the car seat, and went on ahead through the big glass doors. So the baby was left for Isobel to unharness. And replace a fallen shoe. And dab at his face with an old Kleenex. She said while she unbuckled Milton and hoisted him, “She’ll be the one who lives forever. Mark my words. Sheila’s DNA will travel to the far galaxies.”

It was time now for Virgil to be somewhat alert, and turn to his “job” here. Which was to learn how the money was proposed to be spent. Coming to meetings empty-handed – it was another new privilege of wealth. Everything was already signed, so, in fact, there was a redundancy to the whole visit. It was really just a courtesy. A tour for the investors.

Milton, in Isobel’s arms, arched and bucked, to slip down her waist, and he succeeded in escaping.

So here in the parking lot, a little interval of playtime. On the ground Milton crouched at a sprinkler-head in the shrubs, and he closed both his tender hands around it. A grown-up man could find it in himself to be patient with a delay. The boy would want to take his time gripping and tickling the sprinkler-head in various ways to see if it would reveal any secrets. So many things do reveal secrets. The colorless fine baby hair lately was piling up thick. Sheila’s DNA would – yes – travel to far galaxies, because there it was. Right there.

“She certainly does know a lot,” Virgil remarked. “‘Chromatids’ and whatever…”

Isobel was ruffling herself up after the car compression – her hair, her short jacket.

She said, “Having a geneticist for a stepfather.”

They stood over Milton, while he pushed and pulled on the sprinkler-head. The old geneticist stepfather himself, free of the back seat, had moved out scanning around patrolling the perimeter, vigilant for treachery among NASA careerists. Nowhere in all of Silicon Valley – (buildings, landscaping, parking lots) – was there any human motion, a space-colony in this heat. Sheila came bursting back out through the glass doors, her hands banging together. “I told the receptionist. Guess what. Stannis Johanns is coming down to greet us.”

“Sheila, I’ve never seen you so excited!” said his wife, drifting toward the girl, the magnetism between them was so strong.

Whoever Stannis Johanns was, the name made old Bob look quietly disgusted. But he did start moving that direction. Meanwhile Virgil, his arms folded, waited over the explorative child. To be stranded with a child empties the soul, empties it of all its relevancies, and lets old feelings flood back in, the feeling of the median strip, not that long ago, twenty-some years ago, being stuck there between opposing traffic flows. That was an island of some despair. But he wasn’t aware, then, of any “despair,” he thought he was doing fine, at about age fifteen or sixteen. At the time, he felt pleased with himself, in general, because for one thing, on that day, he was wearing his new, vintage-style Beatle boots. And because his father had found a separate place to live, outside the home, so, with his father out of the house, he could get away with anything. He could buy a pair of replica Beatle boots including ankle-zippers, of a black suede that was so soft, its velvet drank light and his narrow feet elegantly vanished. Even being stranded on a median strip was all right, if one happened to be wearing heeled boots and white Levis. Then the arrival of the “lady friend” threw a searchlight on the situation. When she reached out to stroke him, he flinched.

Anyway he stayed back with Milton at the sprinkler-head. The two women and Bob had begun drifting up toward the office building’s doors, leaving him behind. The baby-hands on the sprinkler head were so weightless and fat, they didn’t have much of a grip. Virgil recognized that particular exploratory patting: it was how the infant liked to explore Virgil’s own big hairy ears, bumpy nose, the whole incredible asteroid of the father’s head, with a touch that crept infinitely gentle.

“Let’s go, Milton-boy,” he said, softly, though he didn’t want to go anywhere.

He knelt down where he could smell him, “Let’s go see the astronauts.” Many years from now, the memory of this peculiar strandedness this afternoon – waiting in the sun in a parking lot – could come back as a sad time, or it could come back as a happy time. Memory has a way of brewing toxins in what had seemed a sunny scene. And from miseries distilling a satisfaction.

The building’s glass front doors were flashing, swinging.

Ms. Harkness? Mr. Sproehnle? I’m Stannis Johanns. It’s a great pleasure. A sort of entourage had come with him. He was so youthful, he was implausible-looking. Despite seeming, obviously, the decision-maker on the project, he looked like a twenty-something, except for some grey in his cheek-stubble, his hair long and blown-back like Beethoven’s. His shirt was an old, much-laundered rugby jersey, frayed collar and all; but upon it he wore what looked like a tailored Italian suit: and Virgil (with combined umbrage and admiration) recognized the familiar sizzle of PR. He’d expected a white lab coat, a necktie, and maybe silver temples. The silver-templed scientists were, instead, the entourage: two men in their fifties or sixties, in lab coats and neckties, wringing their hands, smiling, taller than Stannis Johanns.

“Come in, come in, please call me Stannis. Sheila Carmel? Isobel Harkness? Pleasure. Pleasure.” And then he was taking Bob Newton’s hand, grasping it with both his own hands, and describing his long esteem, confessing that he’d served on a committee years ago which (“…at last it can be revealed”) granted a big chunk of money to Bob’s seed bank. “—But it was certainly a unanimous committee. I certainly didn’t have to persuade people. Everybody always had huge esteem for what you’re up to, there.”

Bob only bristled under these blandishments, making them seem insincere, though the man was only being hospitable. The legal troubles were not going to be mentioned. The Dominy Dam was old news. In Aardent’s media clipping services, the “Robert Newton” story had sunk, week by week, to near invisibility. Yet surely, a fellow-scientist would be following the troubles of a colleague who had once been eminent and then gone political. Surely they were all hyperaware of it.

He’d stuck the baby on Isobel. But right away, when they got inside, Milton began squirming in Isobel’s arms because he had to get to a big space capsule mounted on a pedestal in the lobby. He was pushing at Isobel’s rib, digging with his knees. She explained, while she wrestled him, “I’m not the mom. Sheila is the mom.”

Stannis Johanns wasn’t interested in children. He smiled but went on describing the people who were waiting to meet them. Representatives from finance, or research partners, various entities called “The Potts Foundation,” “Ars Longa,” “Perpetuity.” As he talked, he was moving out ahead but facing them, swimming backwards, toward a hallway, the two taller scientists holding open the next set of doors.

“We at NASA and Perpetuity and Ars, everyone is grateful for the interest you’re taking in this.”

The lobby might have been any corporation’s. Except for the space capsule. Seen closer, it wasn’t a mock-up, it was one of the real ones, retrieved from bobbing in some splash-down, the surface welted, burred, scorched presumably by actual reentry fires. Milton was still rocking hard, to get free from Isobel’s embrace, and Virgil came over and murmured in his ear that that was what the astronauts rode in. He kept struggling to get back to it as they left it behind, a big metal toy, a giant badminton birdie, cone-shaped and ruffle-vented, lying on its side. Stannis Johanns had fallen in alongside Sheila. (“You must be the Sheila Carmel who appeared as ‘Administrator’ on all the forms.”) He was zeroing in on Sheila because she would be the route to the implacable stepfather dragging along in the rear, watching his own feet tread the carpet. Stannis Johanns was only doing his job as a hardworking entrepreneur-in-research – but everything seemed smarmy now because Bob’s cynicism had gotten on everything. Stannis Johanns wasn’t, in fact, young at all; he was just youthful; and his small sharp face had undergone the preservative tanning process that celebrity seems to confer. He was telling Sheila she must be proud of her stepfather: “Watersheds, perennial cereals of course, and the whole Native-American bioregionalism, of course fossil genetics. Your dad has always been far out ahead. I guess you know that.” – It was an interesting situation: surely everyone here knew Robert Newton was under indictment. But maybe literally nobody cared. Scientists are above politics and apparently above the law, too. They’re like kids together, crossing boundaries.

Sheila was bearing up well accepting adulation on behalf of the eminent father-figure. She was used to it. She reached to take over the baby. But even in his mother’s care, Milton struggled to get back to the space capsule. Virgil felt the same as Milton: The blistered badminton birdie – which had braved the storied vacuum between the spheres! and had splashed down into this planet’s salty ocean! – deserved a closer look. It had once contained little fetal men and brought them out to where infinity was. So, in that capsule, people took the first bite of infinity and ascertained it was more than just a nice idea overhead.

The group was moving up the corridor, and Mr. Johanns, as he led, kept whirling to include everybody, “I have a short slide show for you. I want you to see the most elderly sheep so far. That is, pictures of her. We don’t have her here.”

Milton was scaling his mother’s shoulder. He had fallen in love. Maybe this wouldn’t take long and they could get back to the lobby and look at the space capsule. Lunchtime had arrived and Virgil was experiencing, more than ever, the hunger and edginess that was a taste of immortality. If he were at home, his 180-calorie lunch would be unbuttered spelt bread, fruit, steamed greenbeans, water. From the look of the lobby, this would be the kind of building that lacks a cafeteria. There would be just vending machines. If this were corporate PR instead of science, they would provide drinks and stylish little sandwich-things or somebody would cater sushi; but this felt more like a university campus, where the nearest thing is a row of snack machines. He was going to get light-headed.

“Let me begin by telling you a story,” said Stannis Johanns. As host, he kept rotating in their midst as they walked.

Then they did pass a vending machine. Exactly the one he’d pictured. Snacks in windows. Crappy little breakfast rolls, microwaveable soups.

“Let me tell you what happened when we began increasing the lifespan of fruitflies.”

Bob Newton – who could very well be the true intended audience, for this – had battened down against it, dragging along behind. Mr. Johanns kept directing everything at the stepdaughter. He was trying to talk through her. The NASA people might think Bob’s opinion was important. Indeed, probably Robert Newton was, yes, the reason for this entire invitation to Ames Research. They want Robert Newton. Robert Newton’s endorsement or something. Or they want to be able to say, at least, that Robert Newton had looked at the project. Virgil knew PR and empire-building and he knew all about spinning and name-dropping, and was glad to be out of it.

“Fruitflies reproduce sexually, and they’re good in longevity studies. At first, we were giving nicknames to the successful individuals – Jeroboam and Methuselah and so on, the individuals who were living longer. But then! Their reproductive rate remains the same! They start getting longer lifespans but still go on having babies! Same as ever! So suppose, if we start out with a few fruitflies in a jar, after a week or two we’ve got six pounds of fruitflies stuffing the jar solid and buzzing together. There’s the problem. If we postpone mortality – if we postpone death, even just a little bit – well, we generate so much biomass, in the pure form of living bugs, just the sheer job of destroying the tons of living fruitflies per week became a serious problem around here – until we got a regular incineration plant going.”

He reached a doorway and stopped, hand on its knob. “Now, humans are going to be a slightly different story,” he opened the door to disclose a group of four humans, sitting around a conference table.

They got to their feet, hopeful-looking, a Mr. Chandler from Perpetuity, and two people from an outfit called Ars Longa, a Mr. Kshatria and a Ms. Rosen. There was Ms. Chang from Marin County, from The Potts Foundation. She was really pleased to meet everybody. She was looking forward to helping set up the non-profit that would manage everything, the whole megillah, she said (while she held tight to Virgil’s handshake and prolonged it, thinking he was important), the whole kit and caboodle, from personnel to capitalization, from physical plant to accountability. Everybody was eager to make a good impression.

Virgil, executively, had glazed over, trying look simply benign. His hunger wasn’t going away. He wanted lunch, as a balm on the stomach, but also as a solace, because down where he repressed such things, he was pained by the memory of the witch on the median strip, and by some guiltiness of his own obscure heart, way back then. He could see himself back then. Now, here, today, he was a rich man, with a philanthropic fortune, and a house with a turreted roof and a closed front gate, and two women he loved, and a baby boy, and the privilege and ability to accomplish some good in the world, while back then, on the median strip, he was a selfish teenager in velvety suede boots. Totally different body. Totally different person. At least the teenager survived. That is, survived his own selfishness. He’d made it this far.

Stannis Johanns sat down at a little laptop. “Would you turn off the lights, Alan?” The lights went off before Virgil had found a chair – they were getting hustled along fast, along the chute for big contributors – and the computer sent an image to a screen on the opposite wall: a photo of a frog. Another thing if this were corporate instead of science: the show would be more expensive, there would be surround-sound, and a musical score, and images onscreen would surprise and dissolve, using all the video-processing he once envied in other people’s campaigns during all the Aardent years.

“Now I’m going to give you my way-oversimplified explanation.” Johanns turned on his seat. His fingers pinched a tiny bit of air, close before his own face, “We take some DNA. Book of Life.”

“Using ligase,” Sheila put in, to hurry him along.

Mr. Johanns looked at her, off-balance, interrupted.

She said said, “Using a plasmid.”

He corrected her, “Or, yes, some kind of polymerase.”

“Ligase is the standard,” she insisted in her smart-ass melody, she got so testy when she cared about something, she could be annoying, and inappropriately aggressive, and Virgil was proud. Sheila wanted to put these people on notice, that she was the critical listener here, and she was holding her own even as Milton was dragging her down on one side, quacking with dissatisfaction.

“It’s technical, it depends on the chemistry,” said Mr. Johanns. As a professional he almost seemed to resent her knowing anything, and before he continued, his hands made a gesture of pressing the girl back into her proper space, really a surprisingly authoritarian gesture of tamping. Then he went on into more complicated explanations, over everyone’s head.

Or at least over Virgil’s head. What Virgil’s mind kept rerunning, and not repressing, was the event on the Marin County median strip twenty-five years ago. He and his father borrowed that woman’s car, the dirty white Volkswagen Rabbit. That was her car. Virgil’s distinct memory was that he and his father had been headed out – out of town – on some excursion Virgil himself was peeved about. He definitely didn’t want to go. The excursion was going to put mud on his new boots. He was also wearing his one pair of white Levis that fit perfectly. Then when the car broke down on the median strip, it was like a divine intervention. It meant he would be able to go back to school, white pants intact. It was a school day. His father, for this expedition, had pulled him out of school.

“In other words…,” Dr. Johanns turned again, to face his audience of visitors (always studiously ignoring the great Robert Newton). He lifted his voice above the rising song of Milton’s frustration, “…if we on Earth are to avoid the Malthusian fate of our little friends the fruitflies…”

The babe was on the floor then, well-escaped from Sheila, and clambering toward the door. So at least the crying had stopped. Mr. Johanns carried on, “This money, your money, will fund the cytology research. You ask about space habitats, but space habitats are a different thing, they’ll be budgeted out over decades,” one hand went up and waved dismissively at a zodiac up where none of us will ever visit, only future generations. “Habitats are still pie-in-the-sky.”

Milton crawled straight for the door, and then stood up against it, pushing with his palms, and began his loud complaint.

“I’ll take him,” Virgil said, and he went over and picked him up. The presentation was interesting but he didn’t need to know about the science. Sheila and her stepfather could do that. He said, “Milton and me want to go out and play around on th’ole space capsule.” The boy could try climbing on the thing if he wanted. Climbing on the old space capsule was probably strictly forbidden. Some receptionist would try to stop them. But when you’re the source of $6,500,000 in research funds, you can do whatever you want.

Mr. Johanns looked confused: He’d thought Virgil’s opinion mattered. He didn’t yet see, Sheila was the scientist, Isobel the rich one.

“My wife, though, she’s the one with the head for business,” he explained as he made his exit, and it was true. In all the documents, her oversight was a condition of the gift. All her valor would come to her, once she’d bowed her head over Ms. Chang’s columns of figures. She looked great today. A withheld sparkle in her eye and a firm skin were signs of the old Isobel. Her plunking down in the driver’s seat this morning had turned out well.

“I’ll go, too,” said Bob. It was the first thing he’d said on this visit. “We’ll be out in the lobby.”

Robert Newton’s desertion seemed to complete the failure of the presentation. The NASA people, as well as the business people, all passed looks around. The likelihood was that the whole show had been arranged entirely for Bob. To get his endorsement. The three others had already signed off on everything.

Mr. Johanns said, “Well, in any case, we’ll just skip forward and show you Matilda. Matilda is our eternally youthful ewe, in Maryland. Everybody loves Matilda.” Bob and Virgil, with Milton, got out the door, while Mr. Johanns said, of the frog whose photograph was already on the screen, “Here’s a frog of ours. Amphibians have a different kind of cell division…”

“How is it delivered?” said Sheila. “Precisely how?”

Virgil got everybody out and closed the door on that meeting. He knew how things would go. Once they were back home, Bob would decree that so-called “Project Posterity” was a scheme of bureaucratic empire builders, and maybe that would be right, partly. But his daughter would give it her approval and her opinion would prevail, because in fact, she was the one with objective insight. Not even Bob, anymore.

He set the boy down on his own little shod feet, on the hallway carpet, where he stalked forward for a few steps and then dropped back down to his trusty crawling technique, and made fast progress on the carpet, while the two men followed.

Virgil said, “So what do you think?”

Bob had been making his peculiar forearm-scrubbing motions, always the more intense whenever his thinking was getting more gnarled.

Virgil was never exactly comfortable with Bob, even after all this time – because he didn’t know how to handle him, or what to expect, or how to respond, ever. He liked him – that is, he admired him; he had a lot of respect for his mind and of course his achievements; and he even discerned humor in there, an exalted, stern, austere kind of humor. But Bob’s personality was made of different stuff from normal people’s. He was quite unrepentant, still. He still believed crippling California’s economy would be a good thing. He wanted to cripple the whole global economy, and he persisted in making some kind of fundamentalist argument along those lines: life will be better when everybody in the whole world is living hand-to-mouth. So he was hard to be with, and hard to talk to. How could anyone actually mean that? They followed Milton’s diaper-stuffed trousers as he crawled, butt ticking and tocking, super-fast, all the way down the corridor to the space capsule in the lobby. When he got there the boy pulled himself up to his feet, gripping the pedestal’s rim in worship.

Robert Newton still kept his thoughts to himself. He was rubbing his wrists together at their pulse-points, as if to kindle warmth.

His not answering made Virgil’s simple question sound simplistic. It was just a matter of wondering whether Project Posterity would succeed in making people live longer. Or, significantly longer. Maybe it was too simplistic a question.

The three of them were looking at the toppled capsule’s underside, the convex bottom-end that had withstood the brunt of the reentry fires. It looked like the underside of a teakettle, gray-dusted, refined by torment of brimstone that had once flared around it, a match lit in the blue sky, flame sealing the thing up, as it plummeted back into this planet’s fortunate oxygen. The toddler Milton, holding the edge of the pedestal, looked dizzy. The whole slightly rounded surface was pretty much all the same color: brutal igneous gray except for a couple of places; freckles here and there, sulfur-stain, spots where something particular had died against it incandescing, taking a little extra time to do so. A conviction, or a belief, had grown solid inside Virgil without his thinking about it. His mother knew about the lady friend. She knew all along. That was the secret key to the little Sproehnle family at 1225 Robinsong. In fact, his mother was glad to discover and know about the whole thing. That was how the house felt drained. It evened everything up. It was Evelyn Sproehnle’s chance. It was her freedom, and it cleared the house, cleared it for everything, the future, the remodeling of the living room, Virgil’s college education, the furniture from Pier One, and how much better they felt every time they said goodbye to the old man and sent him back out, to be the neighborhood bum. After a birthday. After his high school graduation dinner. After Thanksgiving. Sent him down the sidewalk. She was smart. She wasn’t educated or impressive, but definitely smart. She’d seen her own new life coming to her in the form of the bright wraith, the coughing girlfriend.

Still today, Virgil had a clear visual picture of a brown-spotted handkerchief poked into a front jeans pocket. There was rattling coughing going on in there. And the woman’s foot, below the ankle, it somehow dwindled to nothing, to a mitten. But still she could pilot her plastic sandal around. She moved around the stalled white Volkswagen, in a shrugging seahorse motion pecking her way forward, and when she came to the carburetor and touched it with her finger, the engine sprang to life.









Meanwhile Back Home




A Virgil Sproehnle, in his lifespan, will have done his harm via deeds that came naturally and easily and even happily. The Archangel in his editing chair in the dark is still able, through the remaining slot of pain, to see the man to whom he was Dedicated as Guardian, the same Virgil Sproehnle only a couple of decades earlier – a young college student in bluejeans and a Lacoste tennis shirt and Top-Sider loafers with yellow socks – (so doth Screen B present him) – standing in his mother’s kitchen in Terra Linda, lit by the lemon glare of the Formica walls. Those peculiar Formica walls. The morning sun used to rise above the next-door Gutstorbs’ roofline and it filled the yellow kitchen with glory. This is a period when everything in the Sproehnle house was looking wonderful. It’s obvious the father hasn’t been around for a long time. There’s wall-to-wall carpeting, and there’s all the furniture from Pier One. Virgil’s mother, who with the passage of time grew younger in every way, is carrying a tray of three Lipton Instant Iced Teas, of a new kind with the lemon flavor already added, right in the foil packets.

These are the latter days, the better days. His mother got moved up to Assistant Branch Manager, and his father only showed up for specific, well-defined reasons, or occasions like Thanksgiving when he couldn’t be prevented. The living room has central heat. No longer the warm copper tubing running everywhere. No longer the scavenged mill ends. The lawn out front is like any normal lawn. His mother looks taller – and it was remarkable, after the divorce she did grow physically taller, measurably taller. The weak receding chin – it used to make her eyes seem protrusive and jellied when she wore her big glasses – has been replaced by a perfectly good jaw, made partly of bone material stolen from her thigh. Virgil hadn’t seen her for a couple of months, and now the healing process is fully complete. It looks like it’s always been there. Obviously in operating as a mandible it makes efficient short work of Saltine crackers.

Today is the day Virgil has brought his fiancee home, his lovely girlfriend Isobel Harkness of Santa Barbara.

At twenty-three she’s certainly pretty, but it’s interesting to see how unbeautiful her youth seems, compared with the woman she would become. The younger version is shiny, gymnastic. She sits up on the couch cushion with an unnatural straightness, as does Virgil’s mother, who settles herself on a cushion with the same rectitude as in lowering her tray of tall glasses, both women riding high on this new wave, and cautiously – while Virgil himself is just a passenger, on this journey to betrothal on the sofa. The Lipton Iced Tea glasses are, one by one, lifted and handed around. The television is on. It’s always on. That television. It rides on a wheeled cart, leashed to the wall by an electrical plug-in cord, of maybe fifteen feet – but that extent of freedom always did allow it to dominate, reaching around to the breakfast nook or the living room settee, or to the open kitchen floor by the sink. The cart’s little gold-plastic wheels made it master of all the rooms, and Virgil is ashamed of the family Isobel is marrying into, but he can’t summon the authority to get up and turn it off: it’s his mother’s house. He doesn’t live here any more and she likes having it on all the time. Also, the awfulness of all commercial programming is somehow his department, because at Berkeley he chose “Communications” and got an internship at an agency, and so went down that path.

“Half-teaspoon sugar,” says his mother Evelyn to Isobel. She hands her the tall glass.

But Isobel is too distracted to set it down – the glass hovers over the table – because on television, five women lie on their backs and lift their hips, with parted knees, while the central woman chants about clenching hard. The camera closes in on the face of one laid-out woman, who smiles and actually licks her lips – it’s unmistakable, the tongue was an off-camera instruction, the twinkle in her eye is so faky. An instruction from a director who would be standing just off the soundstage. A not-very-smart director.

His mother says, “Will you wear white?”

Isobel tears her eyes from the TV. “For the ceremony? I thought of ivory.”

Virgil on his end of the couch, in the role of bridegroom, is grateful to be innocent, innocent of any brokerage of everyone’s future. Increasingly, as one grows and gets free of this house, one gets a certain perspective, and he has to regard his mother with awe. It was the jaw surgery that changed everything, the two-year-long ordeal of bruises. With a chin, she’s able now to advance toward the corner desk at the bank in the tranquil fluorescent light. He alone will remember she was once the woman in the shadows of the inner den, where the end-tables were piled with splayed-open crossword puzzle paperbacks. All day then in her twilight, the sound of soap opera dialogue murmured, and soap opera music swelled and menaced. She wasn’t even watching those things. She was just playing solitaire on the ottoman. She was waiting. For years waiting. In her old housecoat. If the doorbell rang she was too shy even to come out of her den, her eyes enlarged and adapted to the weakest glowings. Now look at the sharp – even wry – searching glint, inquiring whether the bride will wear white.

She adds, hunching forward consoling Isobel, “Sweetie, I don’t judge. ’Cause Christians?” she gestures. “They judge not either, lest—?” she makes a naughty rueful shrug.

His mother will go to certain lengths in displaying her new-acquired piety, just in order to establish exactly how backward the Sproehnles are, here at 1225 Robinsong Lane. It’s a way of creating a nice low bidding-floor for any new friendships, and it’s textbook affinity-branding, advertising a social-class loyalty – but yet also, as a bonus, getting an opportunity to display the soft glow of withheld opinion. Her eyes emit beams of that serenity. He was sixteen when he first saw that light in her eye, when he realized his mother had permanently shrunken: she told him on the threshold of this very house, as he was going out, that she’d asked “angels” to help him do well on the SAT. Standing in the doorway, stubbier than usual, she’d made an embarrassed toss-gesture casting her one stupid little seed heavenward.

On that morning, he turned and walked up Robinsong telling himself (with, admittedly, personal melodrama), Now begins my lonesome life as an adult, at age sixteen. For on that morning, with a new objectivity, he’d seen the color of Visalia, California, in his mother’s grey irises, a vague air-pollution color: she’d been a bored, dusty child in a lane behind a packing plant, the daughter of a pair of workers in onion-processing factories. She was a girl from the country who had married a serviceman, and felt lucky to marry him; and so, from the get-go, there never was a lot of mental capacity. Now a religious faith would frame her nicely during what remained of her life, and he would be the generation who got to college.

Isobel, though. She has such tact, she joins right in with her future mother-in-law, “Yeah, lest they be judged.”

Virgil can’t intervene anyway. In this crucial moment on the couch, he has the sense that, in his slumped posture, he is slipping under these hurdles to his marriage. Surely this is an affliction most bridegrooms suffer: a secret chicken-hearted certainty (beneath the necessary conceitedness), an inner certainty that they’re in fact unlikely frauds, getting away with a huge false-advertising maneuver. Because look at everything Isobel Harkness is.

Then the doorbell does ring. Both women lower their faces. And lift their iced-tea glasses.

It will be his father, standing on the doorstep of his own house, waiting to be let in. He’s visible out there – on the step holding a bouquet.

Virgil opens the door. “Dad, how’s it going.”

The bouquet is sumptuous, lilies and irises and ferns and a lot of little lacy things.

But the petals are grimy, they’re made of plastic, and the fronds too – the stems are all stuck in a disk of green faded styrofoam – and then he understands, this is something the man rescued at work. Before he snatched it up and brought it to his fee-taker’s shack, it had hit the junk pile. He has walked here, all the way on Terra Linda’s sidewalks, carrying it before him with both hands. The thick hair has been combed down with water.

“Come on in, Dad, don’t stand out there.”

“Virge, it’s good to see you,” he says with an invincible joy, making Virgil turn away. Isobel was forewarned of course, but still, the actual man in the room is scary, the poor stingy atmosphere of a man’s whole life flooding right in. Their lunch reservation is for twelve o’clock. So this encounter can be limited to thirty minutes, maybe less. A necessary ceremony: the father gives away the son. He hasn’t brought the usual armload of vegetables from the dirt they let him cultivate at the Dump. One time, it was four cucumbers packed into the empty, cellophane-windowed box that had once contained an action-figure doll. Instead, he has this bouquet. Which comes between him and Virgil, so shaking hands isn’t a question. His face is radiant above it. They both keep edging around it, in the area of the front entrance. “Dad, this is great, I’ll take it,” he wants to get hold of it and get it offstage. But his father is in motion, he’s so wily, and with his trophy he dodges limping into the living room. Seeing Isobel rise, he says, “Where’s your gal? Right there? I guess something good did come of Virgil going to college.”

Isobel, she smiles with warmth, and with that tilt of the head. Always, one sees how lucky he is. In a way, he veritably is a kind of “fraud,” as a groom. But it’s a gambit he is dedicated to. Maybe he isn’t bringing any money or talent to the marriage, or class, but pure devotion will win him forward. Love like this has to be idiot-proof.

She says, “Mr. Sproehnle, I’m so happy to meet you.”

“Virgil, nice going.”

Their momentum, now, would make it inescapable for Isobel to let herself be enfolded in the man’s janitor-shaped form, but she offers her hand, and he takes it. Some little piece falls off the bouquet, and his father says, “I brought you something, Evelyn,” floating it out, while Virgil ducks and picks up the fake flower off the floor and minimizes it beside his leg.

“They’re wonderful. I’ll just put them over here. How thoughtful, Ed.”

Virgil can’t quite make eye-contact with Isobel – but she, at the edge of her vision, will be aware that he’s trying. The only thing to do is just to let things unfold here. Then later, on the drive home, he can put some proper spin on his father’s performance. A performance is what it is.

“Your people are from Santa Barbara!” Ed Sproehnle tells Isobel, for starters – as if Santa Barbara were some heavenly place the Sproehnles are lucky to be getting a connection with.

Which is exactly right. The man has no idea, in fact. In Santa Barbara they don’t leave the TV on in the middle of everything.

His mother, sitting down, says, “Isobel was going to tell me about the antique business. She plans to open an antique store.”

– But people can’t go into that topic right away, because on television, a woman has opened the lid of her washing machine and she gasps, then screams, fists to cheeks, staggering backwards, for a shirt has risen up, a stained and dirty shirt, from the well of the machine, it levitates, and it rises over the woman, empty sleeves outstretched to harry and torment as she cowers, followed by other laundry, children’s underwear, men’s pants, blouses, all working up in air, the ghosts of her family taking revenge, for some ineptitude of hers, or some omission, all the storm of unclean garments, lifting from the washer and whirling in a tornado, all around her, a blender’s carving whirl, so she has to stagger and cringe and throw her arms around her head. The agency who created the ad won awards for it, the same people who did the “Squeezably Soft” campaign for Charmin, the biggest award-winner in ad history. To stop watching is impossible. It’s genius. Isobel, of everybody in the room, has no natural defenses against this – against the loud appliance the family at 1225 Robinsong Lane has grown largely deaf to. Then she does tear her attention away, and with stung-happy eyes, returns to the topic:

Her antique shop, yes, might display a small amount of old furniture. But it’ll be paintings, mostly paintings. Oh, and they won’t necessarily all be old! She isn’t even sure yet that it will be open to the public.

“Old furniture, though!” exults Virgil’s father, “I work at the San Rafael Transfer Station, and I’ll tell you, people throw away perfectly good things. I ought to bring you items. You’d be surprised.”

“Mr. Sproehnle, that is a wonderful idea!” she responds without a moment’s pause.

“People throw out genuine antiques. Picture frames, too. People throw out a lot of picture frames. A gallery would always need plenty of those.”

“Save me anything that looks good to you, Mr. Sproehnle.”

“Oh my goodness, don’t call me Mister, call me Ed.”

Virgil, still standing, is in no position to stop this. It’s actually a form of his father’s stinginess: thriftily reducing everybody’s expectations of him. Virgil says, “Maybe we should drink up. When’s our reservation? It might take ten minutes to get to The Satin Kitten.”

“The Satin Kitten!” His father is delighted for them. “Fancy!”

“We cut the coupon in the Yellow Pages,” Evelyn Sproehnle tells him, a remark that goes a certain distance in explaining his not being invited. When this meeting was first arranged, Ed wanted them all to get together and have a weenie roast here in the backyard, offering to bring the weenies himself, the kind he purchases from the section of the meat case where product-expiration dates are almost past. So they’re discounted but, as he would point out, perfectly good.

He winks. “Kinda restaurant where you have to mind your manners.” He rubs friction into his hands, sitting up straight on the couch. One thing about the Dump job, it keeps him young, and he obviously hasn’t had a cigarette or a drink for years. He looks like he’ll live to be ninety. “Us guys from Indiana, we stay outta such places.”

Excluding him is the only reasonable thing. Isobel now will begin to see the logic of it. The man’s whole difficulty does have something to do with Indiana. It’s as if he robs the room of light, he absorbs all possible glamor, by reducing everything to plainness and anticlimax, making the rest of humanity somehow opulently guilty. It’s midwesternness but it’s, also, the accent from further back, from back in Maine, where he was a child, where cold educates the bones. “Tip those waitresses good, Virge. The poor girls have to go bare-shouldered in the air conditioning.”

Anyway, the exercise class is back. The leader is standing addressing the camera, talking about her own thighs, stroking them as she speaks.

“Tell me,” begins the old man. “How did you and Virgil meet?” He’s trying to scrape an opening for himself here, audaciously. Virgil watches his mother’s well-built jawbone shift. A muscle pulse at the temple.

His dad persists, “I know you met at college. But that must have been a while ago. So then you re-met? Is that what you did?”

His mother lifts her glass toward Isobel, and she summarizes, “Well, all I can say is: It’s a good thing for us, that you saw something in our little boy.”

Isobel, on the couch, smiles at her groom. “Virgil is a thousand percent potential, I knew right away.”

“You could see that when you first met!” exults the old man, he likes to imagine things so vividly.

“We went to a movie together,” says Isobel. “That was our first date.”

In fact, their first sight of each other was at a fraternity party in the Berkeley hills, a party too sophisticated for Virgil, where she appeared as a pretty and somehow rubbed-raw-looking girl, on the arm of a certain Brad Hightower, whom she lived with at the time. Isobel Harkness was thin, evasive, on Brad Hightower’s cocaine. The cocaine as well as the sore irritability made her an unattainable commodity. Virgil, the dead spot in that bright loud party, thought himself noticeable only for his misplaced awkwardness. Well, but here she was. Misplaced awkwardness must have been exactly a refuge she sought. Deep in his pocket, the fake flower’s flexible stem is sticky as old tape. Its core is some kind of malleable wire, and his thumbnail keeps forcing kinks into it, to fold it smaller.

“Hey, Virgil,” the man’s voice rears up in the hick accent, “We always did know you’s a thousand percent potential.”

“Don’t be a character, Eddie,” says Virgil’s mother, and she tells Isobel, “We say my husband is a ‘philosopher.’ It’s his way of not having a regular occupation.”

“That’s not fair, honey.” With an overfamiliarity he pinches the fabric of Isobel’s sleeve beside him and gives it a playful yank so she can be included in the family hilarity. “I’m a bum,” he confides. “They don’t like a hole-in-the-sock fellow. And I do make an effort to keep standards down low. Much as I can.”

Virgil sits quickly down on the couch beside them as if it might add, somehow, a censuring weight in the balance of cushions. His mother says, “All right, Ed, to be fair, it’s the money you don’t care about. Right? Or to be really fair, it’s the things money buys. Right Ed? You have no use for?”

His father grimaces. Because now this brings him to something he’d like to talk deeply about. He’s got some kind of agenda. His hands are folded in that way Virgil remembers, from family arguments when the word gratitude always used to keep coming up. Gratitude was always a big theme. It’s true, philosophizing and unemployment do go together.

He tells the congregation generally, addressing the ceiling, “I think at some point, you just stop being interested in anything besides work. Which is a lucky way to be.”

“I get that from my dad,” Virgil snaps. “The work ethic, something they have in Indiana.” (Admittedly, the name Aardent is how he registered his new firm.)

“In point of fact,” his father goes on, coming to his Agenda, “The checks do pile up. They keep raising wages at the Transfer Station, and I always keep on getting my checks.” Isobel wouldn’t know, “checks” aren’t the Dump wages, they’re his old Army disability.

Virgil cuts in, “Our reservation is for noon. We should think about leaving pretty soon.”

“This is just to mention, while we’re together here. I have plenty more in savings than I’ll ever need. And with young people getting started, a little extra money could, for instance, help pay the rent for your antique store. Anyway. It’s just an idea. I have all this excess without any use for it. Something to bear in mind. Anyway, my wife tells me you’re an art history major. That’s really something!” Again he scrubs his palms together – but this time it’s the Ed Sproehnle signal that he’d be willing to get up and leave anytime now, kindling a little friction-energy in a cold world.

“Your offer is fantastically generous, Mr. Sproehnle,” says Isobel, creamily. She’s got it now, contempt, that’s the ticket. Her father is already financing the gallery, and it’s a big amount. Ed Sproehnle would have no mental picture, for example, of the Harknesses’ small peachy stucco palace, in a gated community in Santa Barbara with its driveway smooth as licorice, or Mr. Harkness’s pair of classic automobiles in the four-car garage, or his bullying way of retiring to watch football alone in his den whenever Virgil visits. Ed Sproehnle’s entire life savings from the Dump wouldn’t buy a single one of Mr. Harkness’s cars. Still, he’s cagey enough to know exactly how pathetic his plastic bouquet is. Once he’s demeaned himself, as here today, by a well-staged farce, then he’s happy, he’s at peace, he could leave any time.

Virgil’s mother is looking at each person in turn. “Well good,” she says. “I’ll find my wrap.”

She rises. From this point on, everybody will have to evade each other’s eyes. And in shame, all of them, including the grateful-to-be-anywhere old man, will start collaborating, to move this little get-together outside, onto the pavement under the sun, the small sun of February overhead, the isolating sun, it tolls its verdict for each alone.

They all get up – his father stands up too – and everybody mills toward the door, dead-eyed, crowded too close with all the new Pier One furniture, everybody aiming to press toward the inevitable moment, when Ed Sproehnle will have to walk in one direction on the sidewalk – east toward the freeway – wearing his good wingtip shoes, empty-handed now without his bouquet, while the rest of them get into the car at the curb, and pop the passenger seatback forward, so Isobel can scrunch up and climb in back, because the future mother-in-law should have the front seat.



Then the Cadets are knocking. Just at the moment when young Virgil onscreen was looking over his shoulder to see Ed Sproehnle going away down the sidewalk – just then, the two Cadets are rattling the locked darkroom door handle.


“Sorry to disturb you.”

All Heaven and Earth, none of it can be remedied. The old Angel in being interrupted is uniquely enraged, Angelic rage anymore his only gift, because maybe he doesn’t want “Everlasting Day,” maybe he wants misery and mistakenness to go on and on, a blaze one will never want to depart from.

“Hello? Mischal? Are you… ah… ‘devising eternal life’ for Virgil?”

Was a sort of smirk audible there? Rage is an immediate prickling, it surges in the very shoulders, into the very hands. He’s sure there may have been some kind of snicker there. And he is really an unworthy servant.

“Can we come in? We need to prepare. Tomorrow Isobel will have ovulated. Tomorrow they’re out in Artemisia County.”

Boaz repeats then what his fellow-Cadet just said, “It’s true. She’s ovulating. And tomorrow they’ll be in Artemsia County.”

The film is stopped and the old Angel Mischal is snapped back, himself, to a world he could never have predicted, where the actual residue in his mouth is the important thing, and to keep swallowing against reflux. There’s so much blame to be concentrated exactly where it belongs. Right at this moment, he does recognize that he seems to have had one independent little thought. The thought would be something like this: If the true Archangel, himself, fail to carry within himself forever the accumulation of blame, he might cause a different kind of redemption, a redemption nobody thought of. For failure, dependable failure, is the lowest solace. There will always lie a kind of future in failure.

“Mischal? We have the key. We need to get some things. So we’ll just go ahead and come on in.”

– The film is stuck on the last frame. Long ago on a sunny street, Virgil is arrested in the act of half-turning, light-on-his-feet within Earth’s friendly gravity, a young man of a thousand percent potential on that planet.

“We need some old reels, Mischal. Then we’ll go use a different darkroom.”

The scratch of a key in the lock.

“We’re coming in now. Here we come.”

Hokhma first, carrying a filmcan. Then Boaz.

They turn on the overhead lights, banishing shadows.

Boaz’s remark is, “Smell. He’s just been here.”

The two of them stand surveying the editing-room of History. Filmcans stacked in towers. Litter of cigarettes. Haze.

Boaz joins together his cassock sleeves, and his whole visage wanes, in perplexity, as if to say, Whom Providence chooses as its instruments…

“Here’s his vodka,” remarks Hokhma.

Uncapped, half-empty.

“That cigarette is smoldering. Look. So he was just here.”

They venture forth keeping their breath shallow. Keeping their hands in.

Boaz bends to examine labels on the rims of filmcans. “Here’s Pepper Caine. Years of Pepper Caine. Virgil hardly ever met that woman.”

“Tomorrow is Dissolution and maybe Mischal will have… a lot to ‘finish up.’”

There. She’s got evasive words for it, but still, she seems able allude to it. Calmly. Boaz sometimes finds her coldbloodedness disturbing. His response is, he doesn’t even want to notice she said it.

He keeps exploring the room. The old feasting Angel leaves a definite smell.

The whole event cancels all logic, the entire idea of it, it’s impossible, and he blurts out anyway, “Well, it’s weird. In fact, it’s not possible.”

Hokhma makes her feeble little contradiction absently, with a sigh, “Oh – it seems possible.”

“It isn’t. It’s literally not possible. And also it’s weird, it’s ludicrous. Really it’s got to be wrong, whatever it is, and I’m glad it’s a mystery.” Then he shuts up. An unnecessary outburst. But yet he goes on – because Hokhma needs to be told. “Hokhma? I’ve been checking the excrementacles.[31] In Mischal’s rooms, I’ve been going in and looking.”

Hokhma looks awed. This particular facial expression means she might conceivably have let her imagination drift in that direction, but that she is far above such explicit ideas – and, even more, that it’s surprisingly vulgar of Boaz. Though it’s logical. She can definitely admit it’s logical. Something should turn up in an excrementacle. But then if something did turn up, one forbids oneself to think further.

“There’s nothing. They’re always clean. Sparkling. Completely unused. Always.”

“You go in his chambers? How long have you been doing this?”

“Don’t be unhelpful, now, Hokhma. I’m trying to tell you this.”

She’s starting to look defeated now by accumulated bafflements in these strange times, and she sighs.

“You could eat off ’em,” he says. “It’s been weeks.”

The truth is, they’re both trapped in a helpless state of suspicion – and faith alone suffice. But faith in what? Either their Angel is perpetrating this all on his own, or else – useless to think of – some number of others know. And condone. Or authorize.

She says, “Well, you could always read that thing.”

She must mean the Gravamen and Warrant, the 67 bound volumes that were published to all Offices, annals of the Creator’s “Perfidious Treachery in All Things.” The whole set, all two hundred pounds of it, came down via dumbwaiter in several deliveries. Their own set will surely end up being stowed away unread someplace. They’ve been stacked on the floor beside the fridge, in everybody’s way, because neither of them knows where to shelve the whole thing – or if they should be shelved at all. As if anyone would ever want to refer to them.

They seem to be treating them as invisible, while letting them go on standing in everybody’s path. Boaz did try taking a volume off the top, when he happened to be alone with it. And the historical record of vexation and atrocity and injustice and grief and innocent hopefulness was so specific, so minutely printed in such minuscule typeface, that immediately indifference came to him, gift of Providence, pure lazy indifference – preceded of course by its twin, “incomprehension,” the even more fundamental gift.

Both the darkroom screens here are lit – taken up with typical old calamities in Earth. On Screen A, at the Sproehnle house, a miserable get-together on the curb. On Screen B the old father. He’s sitting alone in a cement hot tub, crying, quietly blubbering, wearing a lavender T-shirt, his hair perfectly combed as always.

“I can’t believe you sneak into Mischal’s private chambers,” says Hokhma but with a mix of respectful admiration.

He goes on keeping his distance from everything in the room – from the workbench, the shelves, the bins – because the smell could conceivably get on his own person. “I can’t operate here. Let’s go.”

She, too, keeps covering the lower part of her face with her upheld Isobel Harkness filmcan.

So they make for the door, to use a different darkroom.

Boaz turns back, “Forgot the reels.” In the lower bins, he starts knocking filmcans back and forth, at arm’s length.

Hokhma waits in the doorway, gazing out at the scene of Heaven – and trying, for her part, to have a kind of fond last look. In these dwindling days, everything looks unchanged and unchangeable. Beside the reflective waters, the lawns slope up to a grove of yews, a gazebo, the levitating quartz-candy mountain in the distance – a swing set built of salvaged two-by-fours – a Heavenly bluebird swooping through – and she muses aloud, philosophically, “It will be hard to imagine. I mean at the end of History and the end of Time. It’s really not imaginable.”

Boaz was never much for mysticism.

She says, “I guess I’m talking about ‘perfection’ – whatever ‘perfection’ will be.”

Will there be no residue? Nor any shadow of residue? After the victory of Light, will not even any faint black powder remain, somewhere? Nor even a blasted scorched spot? In some “place”? If there are still “places,” after every illusion has been transcended. The mind, as constituted, can only experience events in material pictures.

“And then, I guess, for Virgil eventually… I guess he won’t feel a thing.”

So she concludes. Somewhat optimistically maybe.

Keeping a vigil over an excrementacle, sneaking into an Archangel’s private chambers: only Boaz is literal-minded enough.

If he did find anything, there’s the question what would they do with… It? One truly doesn’t want to find anything. If they did find anything, the safest place they might put it, a place nobody would think to look, is in the freezer in one of her old popsicle boxes. Because nobody would think to look inside a paper popsicle-sleeve. It is such a grotesque, wrong picture, she is horrified to the point of feeling, herself, reprehensible. If such an artifact actually did come to be present in their Office, they would have a grave responsibility.

Boaz seems to have all the relevant reels. “This is everything.”

In a stack he carries them out the door, film from the years of marriage with Isobel. For tomorrow the wife stands every chance of getting impregnated. A pair of Guardians can still go on with their job. They don’t need to understand Last Things.

And, tomorrow in Heaven is Dissolution Day. A great day. When surely the New Dispensation will come clearer. The day Love will begin to rule supreme.

“Tomorrow on Earth, you know,” she reminds him, “Virgil can confess.”

To his wife, yes. Confess he always knew about her weaknesses and lapses. And that he never did blame her, always loved and forgave her. At last confide. It would make a fitting beginning – for Dissolution Day, the rule of Love rather than Judgment.

Anyway, Boaz precedes her out the doorway.

Last to leave the room, she flips the light switch.

The light-lock door falls gently shut. Darkness can open its deep book again. Over the floor, the door’s beam shrinks down to nothing.

The two Cadets can be heard outside, carrying all their happiness away with them, loudly in happiness vying, Hokhma’s voice rising, sharpening, “If some of those reels are from the nineties they ought to contain some lust, and tomorrow they’ll be out at the campsite.”










The Day of the Dam’s Bursting and the Flood of the Artemisia Valley



Out at the campsite it was the end of their first, perfect day by the banks of the Artemisia – and Sheila had reached the point of thinking she might decant the wine, if only just to suggest a party and maybe improve Isobel’s mood. Isobel, on fertility-clinic orders, was off all alcohol, but just the bloop-blip-bloop in the decanter would, at least, make a cheery noise, and Sheila knelt at the open crate and drew back its tarp. – She was probably a little fussy, but she preferred to guard a cabernet from sun. The Palace Caravan people had provided, in the drawer of the portable bar, a corkscrew. Which opened in the manner of a jackknife and she began deploying it, with the reflection that turning a corkscrew was a form of “work” discordant with the Sabbath feeling of this whole day.

Isobel, who in her camp chair had been breathing shallowly on the brink of making an observation, said at last, “Why do you think I married Virgil?”

Sheila, by sidelong observation, considered the profile sunken low in the canvas chair, her iced ginger ale propped up in the grip of both hands, the medical Glaxo-Wellcome briefcase in her lap pinning her to the chair. Isobel was a woman who had long ago lost the common magic thimble of happiness – or amulet, or enchanted bean, or lucky ring, whatever it may be. At the foot of her folding camp chair was the well-laid campfire, tinder and all, which she gazed deep into. Unlit though it was.

It seemed she’d spoken absently, only to make a small stir in the air. Just to prickle around, not to get an actual opinion. It was an overwrought kind of question why she married Virgil.

One finger slipped inside her ginger ale, and it tapped the lime wedge, making it bob, knocking off its slow-gathered fur of bubbles. Then with a sigh of despair over that little trick, she set the glass down on the briefcase’s embossed emblem (“Glaxo-Wellcome”), an uneven footing for it.

What she would be hinting at was some fatal weakness of her own.

Sheila let the hurtful pointless question die away unanswered. She went on with her wine bottle – causing no squeaks as the spiral sank in the cork. She’d been learning enough to know the peculiar cork-tenderness of a great old vintage. There were nine bottles of this, chosen by herself, furnished by the Palace Caravan people, who had brought in the whole campsite and even laid the first night’s campfire. Isobel was staring into it so intensely her gaze might ignite it.

She then started answering her own question, “I was always cute-looking,” grimly.

So, being cute-looking was a chronic debilitating vice and a perplexity, burdensome to herself, calamitous to all. Sheila brought up a second bottle and started cutting the lead seal.

“I wanted Virgil to be a stabilizing weight.” She pursed her lips.

Then following some inward argument, reaching some verdict on herself, she lifted her glass – darkly saluting something, saluting her picture of a duped, innocent Virgil. She once said that her secret affairs had damaged her soul but never Virgil’s, because he never knew about them, nor had the slightest suspicion. Happy man, unobservant man, able to live elegantly on the surface, like those wonderful water-insects that walk on dimples. Virgil never fell through. He went everywhere whistling as if to deafen himself.

Isobel sighed. And struggled up straighter, under the briefcase. Another big sigh – and a fresh, mocking head-tilt – this was an emotional resolve now, to cheer up. Now she would go back to her usual jokes and ironies, keeping the world at a distance by pokes, fluffing it up, rendering it absurd. Because any minute Virgil would come back from the car. He had gone up to fetch Isobel’s paintbox: she’d been looking out at the forest remarking on the dark vertical treetrunks, among rays of low sun, reaching out and molding what she saw, behaving like a little invalid girl in her pathetic chair, and Sheila had told her to go ahead and sketch it. But, Isobel pointed out, there were no paints – and Sheila had been able to say, no, I packed an entire paintbox. To which Isobel complained that that was thoughtful but it doesn’t work without decent paper. Well, Sheila had packed, too, not only a Strathmore pad but also three of those medium-sized primed boards. Soon he would be coming down the path with his arms loaded. She sat in her folding chair, eyeing the forest, looking trapped. The scene out there hadn’t changed since she’d remarked on it. Heavy vertical pillars. All backlit by sun. Fuzzy gold light. In the last spots where sun hit the forest floor, it blazed like sulfur troweled in long bars. Milton lay out undiapered and naked on a quilt in the dappled shadow. Unlike a cabernet, he would improve by exposure to light. His yeast was a different sort from a wine’s yeast. A whole other kind. He sucked on a wooden block testing its corner with his lips and gums and his four milk teeth, doing a wonderful job, himself, of paying complete attention to the shape and feel of a wooden corner. He had to be watched, because he was capable at any moment of turning himself over and clambering.

“Yep,” the first wife spoke over the rim of the glass at her lip, conclusively.

That’s all she said. She was inwardly reaffirming some kind of verdict on herself.

Sheila sank the corkscrew into the second bottle – the decanter they’d provided looked big enough to hold only one bottle at a time. She answered at last, “You married Virgil to care for him. Somebody to care for. That’s a good reason.”

It was a harmless answer; even a perfectly vapid answer. But on Isobel it soon had the effect of a thorn.

“I was great,” she said. Which was simply bitterness.

She spoke up higher, “You know why I married him? I married him because I was good for him. That’s really why. ‘Cause I could be good. I got to be a good thing. He had his shitty family that – as he used to say – his mom and dad were locked in a lifelong competition to see which of them could be the bigger loser. Like, He’s stupid, I’m ugly, that’s why we’re a great combo. Until his mom broke that chokehold. The reality was, his entire childhood, he was taking care of them. So it was like training. He was the only man I ever met who wasn’t… pretentious?” She seemed to think that an insufficient word. “Or maybe I was young and he was the first one I noticed.” She sat there picturing herself as a young woman. “I mean, I’d really had it.”

Her existence before Virgil, as she’d described it (living with a frat boy who was so rich he didn’t go to classes) was mostly a tireless search for sensation, launching herself into every kind of pleasure until the whole world everywhere was numb.

She repeated, “I’d really had it,” quietly inside her own mask.

“Here he comes now.”

Virgil’s unmelodious whistling came from far up on high ground among big treetrunks, where he could be seen posting along down the dirt path from the car, carrying Isobel’s black teak paintbox and her collapsible easel – and carrying also the rolled-up plat maps of the whole acreage. All those surveys, they’ll be obsolete now.

Sheila remarked, “He does bring off ‘unpretentious.’”

They were both watching. Old Mr. Good News could be seen flickering through the trees, the characteristic gait, rising to his toes, an optimistic up-and-down boink that was enhanced today by his switch from loafers to stiff-soled tennis shoes, a boinkiness seeming to accentuate the big-ears-and-overbite aspect of Virgil. He certainly didn’t look like the owner of this tract of land so important that, somebody said, they’d need to put in a special freeway exit for it, ten miles away. “Maybe I should open a third bottle of wine for tonight. If we’re going to transform Virgil into a monster of desire.”

Isobel didn’t seem to hear. In her abstraction, she had lifted the hinged lid of the insemination kit, to scan over its contents, the instruments embedded in form-fitting compartments. Syringe and catheter. Ovulation tests and pregnancy tests. Empty vials with paper sterility stickers. Squeeze-tube of chemotaxis gel. A centrifuge and its rolled electrical cord. Most of which, whatever it was, didn’t apply in their case, fortunately. Poor Isobel, puffy around the eyes from her hormone doses, lifted her ginger ale with its trapped wedge of lime, and at last she smiled a little bit in admission that something amusing, if only dimly, had been said. About transforming Virgil into a monster of desire. But then she looked up, looked at Sheila, because she was obviously reminded that she was grateful for Sheila, there was that in her eye, which Sheila felt herself bathed in, though she turned away and kept her attention on the decanter. Stowing it below for later. This whole situation in the marriage made her hyperventilated with self-consciousness. She would never be able to love Isobel as Isobel needed to be loved – because Isobel Harkness herself was an ingenious assemblage of tilted, flashing shields.

“They have included helpful movies,” she observed, turning back to the insemination kit on her lap, “for gentlemen requiring inspiration.” She read their titles aloud, “‘Playboy’s Best Erotic Movie Scenes of the Twenty-First Century’ and ‘Some Housewives Will Try Anything,’” bleakly.

Virgil, on the zig-zag descent, rounded another bend and disappeared behind some treetrunks – then reappeared coming down the path farther away.

“Well,” the older woman said of Virgil, “He has been a regular guy.”

She lowered the kit’s lid.

Meaning what, exactly? She’s spoken before this way – as if “regularity” were some virtue, impossible of attainment for such as her. Which she could only be grateful she’d married into. They both watched him, instance of regularity, on the dirt path across the ravine, rolled-up surveyors’ maps under one arm, art equipment clamped under the other. He dropped behind a bank of ferns, with that bounce in his stride so his shirttail was flopping. His mindless whistle trailed him everywhere, a pennant announcing always in his vicinity that Virgil Sproehnle, whoever else he might be, was someone who expected, and was entitled to, a sufficient obliviousness anyplace he went.

Isobel was re-snapping the two buckles of her insemination kit. Her day had been pretty much ruined when they went to see the barn, fragrant old cedar hulk in the forest’s open meadow. The minute she laid eyes on it, she started looking like she wished she hadn’t come. And the more they toured around inside, the more skittish she got. Virgil swung his arms in the open threshing-floor: “All those little interior walls will be demolished. And here, right here, vertical sliders will hold big tall paintings, so you can just slide ’em out, like drawers – just slide ’em out,” making wide scooping, waltzing motions, until Isobel was forced away, as far as the open barn door, as if all she wanted was to get back to the car.

To be beloved is, itself, an onerous responsibility. In her forties, Isobel Harkness could be re-educated if the other two could keep showing persistence and faith. So maybe years from now, she would be able to look back. Look back and realize she’d accepted belovedness. Because one does live most importantly in retrospect, and in recollection. Things only pay off after years! So you’re not even experiencing present moments, not until you re-live them. The present moment is blinding, it’s agony, it’s like napalm on people, people understand nothing. In the barn today Isobel kept drifting against the walls, not wanting to be present.

She looked up at Sheila from her camp chair. She was on the point of saying something.

Then she looked back out into the woods and went ahead and spoke. It was an emergency for her that she say this. “I think I wanted him to notice, and know.” She looked at Sheila again, then away. “I wanted him to find out.”

She meant find out about the affairs, the affairs during their marriage.

“He was clueless. He doesn’t have the slightest thought. I was like trying to ruin everything. I was like dancing out there. But he’s totally innocent,” and she almost giggled with that, because she was speaking out of an inner thrill of wickedness, and she brought her glass up to her mouth and drank while her bugged-out eyes scanned around in the woods. She’d just revealed she’d wanted, once, to drag everything down and wreck a man and destroy faith, and that she’d failed. – But surely it wasn’t that simple. People don’t understand themselves. They think they do, but they don’t. They have no idea. They shouldn’t sum themselves up. It’s exactly why life is really lived in retrospect, backwards.

“Well, here he comes,” Sheila warned her.

This to change the subject. Now before he arrived.

But Isobel wouldn’t get off it. “Like, did you ever see news photos where there was a bomb? With rubble? Like a bomb or a missile hit and there’s chunks of cement but nothing recognizable? Isn’t that weird? That no piece of furniture or anything is sticking out? Not even a lampshade or a couch or something. Like, where is all their stuff? Like, dust is still settling, like toxic dust, and there’s slabs of cement, there’s bricks and whatever, and there’s a guy out there picking through it. And maybe there’s, like, one big wire sticking out. But no stuff. No furniture. Where did all the stuff go? Totally. Pow.” Her eyes drifted. “Maybe they just didn’t have any furniture.”

Sheila really didn’t know how address this.

She’d put away the two empties and pulled the tarp back over the crate. She went back to the wet bar. “Well, do you want to hear something ridiculous? Guess what. Change of subject here. You’ll never guess.” – This was the usual thing, applying herself as some kind of balm. “I’m thinking I’m gonna change my career plan. Again! What do you think about that?”

It took a moment but Isobel did then make an effort: a perfunctory smile, groggy but apparently grateful.

She slid the Glaxo-Wellcome briefcase off her lap and set it aside, tucking it under her camp chair. “No more viniculture?” she said. She lifted her own weight and kicked at the foot of her chair in the dirt, to turn it, to be sociable. “I’m disappointed. What is it now?” she smiled brighter, but still tired.

“Public relations,” Sheila announced.

“Oh no.”

“Not like with Aardent. Not that kind of PR. I want to do PR just specially for Perpetuity.”

“Sweetheart. Virgil will despair.” Her eyes were always red-rimmed from the fertility drugs. “Don’t do PR, Sheila, you’re a scientist. You love biology. Sorry but you’re the brilliant one, you can’t do public relations.”

“Only strictly for the NASA thing. I don’t want to be in PR like Virgil was. I don’t love PR, I don’t necessarily even like PR – I just love what they’re up to, here. Just this particular one thing. In the end, it’s political influence I want in the Perpetuity organization. This thing is great, you know,” she waved out at the forest, the building site. “Before winter they’ll be building. Clearly I’m not going to be any help with the science, to be honest. These’ll be super-scientists here. However, I understand it. I know the science. I’ll take business courses while I’m working for them. – Anyhow they’re going to have to take me whether they like it or not. Because of my position. I want to be written into the deal. I’ve got a job title, Vice President in charge of Communications. I’ve already told Dotty Chang. She says fine. She has to say fine: I’m the money. So they’ll probably be unsure about me for a while, just because I’m the money. But they’ll see.”

Isobel, sitting in the chair’s low canvas pouch, looked up at her. She was a million miles away and still receding.

A change of subject was an evasion that hadn’t worked, rather it had backfired, because it was plain to both of them what the younger woman was doing, she was blocking Isobel’s revelation about her marriage, a confession as strange as homicide. Sheila was actually trying to pretend Isobel hadn’t said it.

And pretenses are schizoid. Pretenses will drive a person crazy – pretenses are inhumane – it’s inhumane to pretend something hasn’t been said or heard – and Sheila could almost see a dimness in Isobel’s eye, the dimness of having hit up against a wall, the dimness of a long bewilderment from the years. What if Isobel Harkness had been driven to permanent confusion, some kind of disconnection from herself, during a decade of duplicity, fighting against forces she couldn’t see or understand, the force of Virgil’s obstinate ignorance. And had long ago lost hope. Long ago lost direction. Virgil’s constant whistling habit is really as if precisely to deafen himself.

“Well, gee, Sheil.” The woman produced one of her sad smiles. “I guess you won’t be working in the sunny vineyards.”

“No more sunny vineyards.”

“You’ll be on the phone all the time. Virgil used to hate that.”

“I know I probably seem wishy-washy, but Isobel!” she pointed again to the forest, where soon would stand lab buildings, curving drives, a booth with a guard to check people’s IDs. “Imagine if they can seal the telomeres. Imagine. The little shoelace tips.” In explaining DNA strands, the picture she always used was a shoelace: A shoelace’s ends don’t fray when it’s sealed by plastic tips.

“Anyway, here he comes.”

He was tramping down a fresh diagonal, across the ravine. The rolled-up maps were telescoping out behind him, and while they watched, a few fell out, and they seemed to escape on the slope. So he stopped and then he got enmired in the problem and had to kneel in the path, disappearing behind ferns.

Sheila said, “Let’s send him away and we can get ready for tonight. Give him a glass of wine and send him off where he can go out and survey his vast holdings for a while.”

“—While he’s still got vast holdings.”

Isobel the wife was putting on a cheerful face: She had let herself be pushed back. Censored from speaking, she’d been forced back again, from a shore she’d swum all the way to, swum through perhaps terrible distances, only to be pushed back into the surf, by her closest friend.

It was an intimate betrayal but Sheila just didn’t want the responsibility, she almost felt too young somehow, to know such things, things about a marriage, or about meanness and confusion. Isobel Harkness, looking indeed slapped and rebuked, was gazing out into the woods, her hands lying over her throat, over the locket spot, in a kind of soft self-strangulation, and she said speaking from her place in the surf, “I need to get in the kitchen. I haven’t yet begun,” she slanted her head to one side and made her face of doleful sarcasm, “…stuffing the hens.”

“Oh, of course. Stuffing the hens. And I want a shower, and I want to tire Milton out, so he’ll sleep.” Milton at that moment was in fact asleep again, on his blanket.

Isobel got up out of her chair and she picked up her insemination kit to go inside – probably to get the little plump birds out of the icebox, but also to face the dreary sacrament on the toilet seat – moving with that new elderly cramp in her walk, one shoulder pinned up higher than the other, habitually sticking herself away.



But soon, none of this is going to matter anymore. The Archangel feels absolutely fine. His work is done, his terrible work, and the death of the Author of all things will have been commensurate and alike to His creatures’ deaths. All His billions of creatures’ deaths.

And today is Dissolution Day. And it’s unmistakable, the Angel feels very good indeed. It isn’t just the absence of particular personal discomfort, there’s also the flood of light, because the work is over. And when a great Angel lifts his eyes, he lifts them even unto far corners. The Angel, on this night past, has slumbered deeply and slept soundly. There were no drenchings in sweat during the night, there were no nauseous warped places, no sudden twitches sensing an abyss, no jerk of panic, as of a hammock slipping one knot. There was no strange, single, lost human-like yelp from some far past echoing to wake him. It happened that there was one last feverish visit, as in a dream, alone at the bier where only a brine jam on the slab remained to be mopped together by hand, pinched up in fingers, at which point, one almost relished it, the vindictiveness, for yes, now finally the Creator of all things may have evidenced that He “so loved the world” (for that is an expression that, now, even the botched and the loathsome can and will affirm by mouth). But He should have loved it from the start. He should have, and from the start shown it, that He loved what He’d made. It will always have been a terrible question. And now, for once, there was no forgiveness then there. Forgiveness was far from that place. So there has been such a place, a place with no forgiveness. And so there will always have been such a place, a necessary place, there will always have been a place with no love.

But that was the worst, and the last. At some point beyond the midnight hour, he awoke at a sort of pinnacle at a point of the fever’s breaking – with a first clammy sheen of optimism – then he plunged back, under the dark waters. And awoke in the morning with a dawning health like amnesia, and in his body a grateful stiffness.

Which the usual dose of Office coffee has already healed. And now, throughout an Angel’s entire Universe, very little remains to be accomplished, only a bit of permanent damage to be done in the Old Dispensation. Requiring only an hour of editing.

Heaven today looks, still, as if nothing will ever change. The gold light on the distant cloud-towers. Far below is the rim of Hell’s black cumulonimbus cave, occasionally flash-lit from within, a cinder beach, where the sinners are massing for evacuation rotting there for transport, like triage cases, the shore itself swelling weirdly. The tiny termite-like labors of the wretched, from this great distance, are only a granular milling. The whole phenomenon never used to be so visible. Well, today, on this Dissolution Day, the migration may begin. Daily happenings in Earth won’t show any immediate change. Some years must pass. The words of the Bulletin were: “The event of Dissolution does not restore Earth to its condign state directly.” But here in these clouds, “All Offices in all Choirs will welcome the Maleficent, the Ignored, the Miscreant, the Uncomely, all in their conditions to be rehabilitated.”

He’s got his coffee, as well as a small cup of broth. Because he’s thinking his stomach will be able to accept it. He can use an elbow to depress the darkroom door handle, and, both hands full, he backs through the light-seal door. Goodbye old premises, one day.

Broth here, coffee there. He puts them on a shelf to start preparing his nest of work. Amber nicotine is on everything. Praise be, indeed. He trashes the two cigarette packs.

And settles in at the workbench. The privilege of Ordinary Guardianship is what saved this old Angel. It was good fortune, his being Relegated. In cosmic history, he will have served for a time as an Ordinary,[32] and it was a privilege. An Angel who was buffeted in confusion, he was stabilized by his love for one solid mortal Virgil Sproehnle.

The end of the cosmic “story,” now, will be a happy one. Only a little more Time will remain. The taleteller’s quaint equipment will be useful today one last time, in returning to the days of drama, days of injustice, the days of the general “misunderstanding.” It’s a rule of the dramatist: the “happy” ending is for melodrama or comedy. But tragedy, it shall be no more. Tragedy once was. Tragedy will have been only a Rumor. Now for the duration, only comedy and melodrama.

The reel of film on the workbench is the one that records the escape of the goat. The day the goat got loose, it was an exemplary kind of masterpiece of the Old Dispensation, permanent lasting shame, originating in one of Ed Sproehnle’s typical hopeful, misconceived enterprises: his plan of keeping a goat in the yard.



“Virgil?” his mother called from the kitchen. Until now it had been a perfect morning. “I want you to turn off the TV.”

Which meant it was time for his father to arrive. The Three Stooges had just begun one of the wonderful long contests where the trio stood together tormenting each other in a festival of eye-gouges, slaps, strangulations, head-butts. So when the stupidest of the three (his eyes bulging, while the smart one’s hands crushed his throat) started jerking in paroxysms of asphyxiation, Virgil was lulled in pure delight, the delight of a homework-neglectful boy with a stack of Oreos on a Saturday morning. Then his mother’s sharp voice had come echoing from out of the whole basic structure of unfairness in the world, the great amphitheater of unfairness, which doesn’t go away when your back is turned. Probably his father would make him milk the goat. The last time he was here, he’d threatened, in his jolly way, that goat-milking would provide their main recreation on his next visit, something they could share as father and son. And then, who knows, there would probably be goat milk. He’d refuse to drink it.

It was out there right now – all week it was staked to the ground under the dead plum tree.

Which it had killed, by eating all the bark. The hairless nipple, the udder an incredible pumpkin, its calm evil eye, its wooden forehead, its kibble spilling in the dirt – everything on that blighted side of the house was banished from the personal universe of a young Virgil Sproehnle, whose clever human hands were rehearsed in Nature’s most highly evolved activity, prying apart an Oreo Cookie’s twinned black disks, with an artful unscrewing motion, to reveal the sugar paste that then can be applied to the back of the tongue – so it precisely glues the palate – where saliva will seep to erode it only gradually, if he hold his throat and tongue as still as a dead man’s, as soft as a dead man’s, and thus make the sweet paste last almost forever. Every time he’s faced with the goat, making its blaaat sound, stretching its chain, or standing on its hind legs nibbling twigs, he wishes his father would simply not come back ever. Would stay across town, in his rented garage. Or die in some easy way, offstage. Or not necessarily exactly die, but move to another town, or develop an interest. Because here, life with his mother had evolved into his own small illicit kingdom: He got the exact perfect white jeans, and Beatle boots, without having to argue or negotiate. At school, rather than standing in the cafeteria line, he could go to the vending machines, with his own cash for Mountain Dew and Slim Jims, something his father would never have allowed. On days like today (with usually only calisthenics and the homework quarrel to fear), the stooges Moe and Larry and Curly would be followed by “Love American Style,” which in turn would be followed by “Fantasy Island.”

The doorbell rang then.

He wouldn’t answer, he’d stay right there and let his mother get it, he didn’t want to milk the goat. He had a god-given right not to milk the goat. He liked what he was doing right now, watching TV. This was his home, it wasn’t his father’s home anymore, he liked relaxing, he liked wearing his good jeans and boots and modeling the crest of his hair with Brylcreem and staking himself out in the couch so the pants-cuffs would keep covering the boots’ ankles entirely, and his shirttails would stay tucked in tight.

His father was trying to work his way back in. This semester he virtually forced him to go on a camping trip. It was like a surprise attack: he waited along Virgil’s route to the schoolbus stop, holding a fishing pole, leaning on the fender of a white Volkswagen Rabbit he’d borrowed. “Hey, Virge, let’s play hooky today.” In the backseat was a lot of fishing tackle, with a Big 5 Sporting Goods sticker on each thing, to prevent theft – because it was all rented and needed to be returned on Monday – along with mops and a vacuum cleaner, because whoever owned the Volkswagen had left their cleaning equipment in the back. “They’ve got streams in Mendocino with salmon,” his father said. “Salmon” was supposed to be alluring. Virgil, on the sidewalk, wearing his school backpack, was trapped and defenseless. It was going to be a three-day expedition, without TV, sitting on a bank of a stream holding a fishing pole, while his dad philosophized at his side. Even the name of the place – “Mendocino” – sounded like a desert. Fortunately the trip ended before they could get out of town. The car had a mechanical problem and they got stuck on the median strip of 101. Then the person who owned the car, an old female, arrived in a taxi cab to rescue them, the strangest woman in the world, she was actually a cleaning lady, at an age where she was just turning into a witch, with a literal hunchback. You had to look close to see it. He’d never met a real hunchback and believed, in fact, that all genuine hunchbacks were frosted deep within the pages of fairy tales and no real ones survived in the modern era. But here was a real one, if you looked close. She was missing toes, too. “Lady’s got a blood circulation problem,” his father explained, murmuring low, while this elderly gal – who really could have been sixty but had a flirtiness that slurred her speech – went around the car on the median strip, moving with a thrust of the face, a hoist in one hip. She popped the hood – easily – which was the thing his father hadn’t figured out how to do; and she touched the carburetor, and the engine sparked with her single touch – then she took the wheel and drove them to a car-rental agency. Her car was considered too undependable for the trip now, so they would get a rental, and she was going to pay. As a gift. She was a secretly rich old hunchback. Still, the trip became impossible again, soon, because at the rental agency, his father began chatting and blathering saying he’d never been fishing in his life – wasn’t that amazing? – and didn’t know exactly where Mendocino was, never’d been there, though he knew it was right up there somewhere. He went on gabbing in his way, and the people at the rental counter began to find the situation peculiar, and, while they were running the “lady friend’s” credit card, they discreetly checked with the police, who determined Virgil was truant, even though his own father was standing right there. How can you be truant when your parent is right there? Well, Virgil learned a little more that day, about who his father was, around the neighborhood, because while they were waiting at the rental counter, two cops in a cruiser pulled up, and when they saw it was only Eddie Sproehnle, the relaxation set in, and the chuckling set in. They saw Eddie all the time, and he was harmless, but nevertheless, because it was procedure, they did want to see the receipts for the rented fishing equipment. They apologized, and of course everything checked out all right. They did find that Ed Sproehnle’s driver’s license was expired, and Virgil would have to be driven back to T.L. and sign in as tardy. And his father would be taken back to the Dump. The idea of interrupting the mother at work and bothering her about this, was, everybody decreed, out of the question. It was clear how the world goes: they were in trouble essentially because his father wore no socks and he babbled too sociably. And because his lady friend had a hunchback, and a languid slur, and a weird cap. There was something seriously decrepit about her, involving the cough and the handkerchief, and the smile like she was falling asleep.

So, riding in the backseat of a police cruiser, they were taken back to their separate lives. His father had an unfortunate way of growing more talkative when he was nervous, and while they sat in the backseat, he subjected Virgil to one of his cheery little lectures, on the foolishness of trying to be a conventional success, and the satisfactions of living life on your own terms, no matter how frustrating, and not buying into all the junk they want you to believe in, and go into debt for, and make payments on. By which he surely meant the Beatle boots. When the police cruiser reached the school and Virgil got out, his father stayed in the cops’ backseat, and in saying goodbye he said, of the boots, “Those things make you look taller.” It was an admission of defeat. Admiration, but grudging.

The caller at the front door this morning wasn’t his father. There was a woman’s voice.

He hit the volume. So the Three Stooges were yammering, but silently. “Come on in, Carol,” said his mother at the front door.

He realized his mother was dressed up this morning. A blouse and earrings. They never had people visit.

“He isn’t here yet,” his mother said. “I made coffee and a crumb cake. Make it festive,” she muttered darkly.

“Fine. Good idea,” said the person named Carol. “It’s okay if I park there.”

They went in the kitchen.

His mother had never mentioned a Carol. She didn’t have friends who came to visit.

He got out of the couch to see out the window.

The car at the curb was a frugal white compact. An insignia was on its door panel.

“Have a chair. He should be here soon. He is… extremely punctual,” his mother finished, in the fake tone like served-up pie that was always one of her nicest arts. In the same tone, she went on: “There’s the goat. Isn’t she nice? Her name is ‘Pansy.’”

The visitor said, “I see.”

Nothing was added to that. Coffee was being poured. Then the visitor said, “So now. Is your son home?”

“Virgil’s here,” said his mother. “I haven’t talked to him but he’ll do fine.”

“Is it possible you’ve got honey? I’m avoiding processed sugar. You know you’re doing the right thing, Evelyn.”

His mother, lowering her voice, began, “For years he promised him a pet, you oughta have a pet, every boy needs a dog, I’m gonna get you a dog. Now that we’re separated, he’s been saying he wants something to replace himself here. A pet. Something cuddly. So finally the pet is coming. When it comes, it’s a goat. Nobody even wants to touch it. What kind of subconscious aggression is that? Really, what message?”

Carol, in the atmosphere of the kitchen, didn’t make any answer.

The plastic honey-bear made its squirt-fart, through its hat-nozzle,.

“Always the ‘better-tomatoes-than-Safeway’ argument – but this is the first actual livestock.”

“Well, our secret weapon,” the other said, “is the existence of his friend.”

“Oh, it’s not bizarre. I can tell you what Ed gets out of it. What Ed derives is: he gets to take care of someone. He found someone even worse off. People have to feel like they’re needed. And I say, more power to ’im. When he was here, I mean when he was living here, I’m sure it was always difficult for his ego, because – what can you say? – he’s just not…” – some gesture must have passed. “He’s just not. So if he has somebody, I’m glad for him. Honestly. It’s good for him.”

“Well, as I say,” the social worker said. “As I say, she’s our ace in a hole. If he proves recalcitrant.”

“He won’t,” said his mother. “You’ll see.”

The dishwasher’s door made its clang, of an inner spring. A couple of spoons were dropped into the utensil-basket.

“Your goat is kind of funny,” Carol observed. “Why is it making those little motions with its hindquarters?”

His mother sent up the sigh that made satire, and Virgil, in the next room, loved his mother’s wit, it never failed to rescue him. He would always have that original blessing: a mother equipped with that extra bit of mischief and intelligence. She said, “I suppose we’ll all be learning about goat behavior.”

Carol said, “Could it be pregnant? What is it…doing? If it’s obviously lactating like that?”

“Honestly I try not to look.”

Out front, at the curb, a truck pulled up. It was a flatbed, loaded with iron cannisters of propane – Virgil slipped away from anywhere near the window – because Ed Sproehnle himself hopped down from the passenger side. He had obviously hitched this ride here, wearing the Dump trousers, and wearing the knitted stocking cap. And, for some reason, a suit jacket, like a businessman. The driver got out, too, and walked around the truck to begin wrestling a cannister – while his dad stood beaming at his own former home, hands on hips. He somehow saw Virgil in the window and he started waving in greeting, with great sweeps of the arm that meant Come on out, I got something great to show you, come on.

Virgil did sneak out the front door, soundlessly. So the two women wouldn’t yet know anybody was here. An ambush was being laid. Something was happening. He would keep his father’s arrival separate for just a little while, according to certain confused loyalties that still pertained.

“Virgil, this is neat. Feel with your hand,” his father patted the iron cannister on the curbside. “Tommy, this is my boy Virgil. Virgil, this is Tommy, from Amerigas. Tommy’s been telling me all about propane.”

His father’s ill-chosen tweed jacket had a patch sewn onto the pocket, a shield, a fancy crest actually, where two tennis racquets were crossed like weaponry. It had originally been worn by a broader-shouldered man.

Tommy, getting back into the cab of his truck, didn’t say hello or even touch the bill of his cap, he just raised an eyebrow at Virgil, in greeting as well as sympathy, because this house on Robinsong was, undeniably, an odd situation: the shelves still standing outside in front of the garage door, the front yard barren because it never recovered from the butternut-squash crop of two years ago, the father who sleeps on a foam pad across town in a place with a roll-down metal door, the son who wears black suede boots with ankle-zippers because he can actually hear the call of a better world. The truck released its parking-brake and pulled away.

“So long, Tom, thanks for the ride. Virgil, go ahead, touch it. Just feel it.”

Since it was clear that Virgil didn’t need or want to touch it, his father went ahead and touched it for him. “See it’s cold. ’Cause propane, on this planet, is gonna boil! See, Tommy just now let off a little pressure. This is LPG: Liquid Propane Gas. Think of it: a liquid gas. It’s a gas but it’s liquid. It wants to boil, is what it wants. It’s trying to boil away right now, just like boiling water.”

Virgil’s pants had ridden up exposing some of his boot; but with a practiced scrape, in a stance like a flamingo’s without losing poise or even unpocketing his hands, he could use a lifted instep, or just a toe – to rub the pants down, and better cover first one ankle, then the other.

“See, the boiling point of propane is 44 below. That’s 44 degrees below zero. Where it boils! Propane’s natural state is to be cold, in outer space in the stars. On Earth we keep it by keeping it under pressure. We have to keep it from boiling away. Even on a winter day it would boil. Except maybe on the North Pole. On the North Pole maybe you could have a puddle of propane, just lying there. Isn’t that something? Here, touch it, really. The liquid part is in the bottom of the tank. The vapor is in the top. It boils and the steam-off-it is what you burn.”

He looked around, while fading slightly, “Gonna keep that old propane refrigerator going for your mom.”

Then he said, “Is somebody here?” referring to the white compact at the curb. The insignia on the car’s door panel (stick figures like the kind that indicate public bathroom genders) portrayed a man-woman-child trinity. This generic family was encircled by a ring with sharp brassy teeth: a gear.

Virgil explained it (now helping to lay the trap, whatever it was), “Somebody’s here, I guess.”

“Would you gimme a hand bringing this in back?”

There were two handgrips in the tank’s collar. His father went around so he could use his good arm, and between them they carried it to the rear of the house, along the Gutstorbs’ hedge, past the trash-burning barrel that had been moved there. His father patted the barrel as they went by, “Mom seems to be paying for garbage pickup.”

“She didn’t want to make Dump trips in the Impala and get it dirty.”

“Mm-hmm,” said his father, to whom the Impala was an offense.

In the backyard, Pansy stood at the taut extent of her chain, aiming straight at them, her profound eyes fixed on them.

Virgil’s mother, opening the back door, said, “Hi, Ed. Someone’s here. Come on in, both you guys. Carol is here, Ed. Carol is from the County.”

The gas-powered fridge, roofed on top with many years’ dead leaves, stood behind the Schwinn bike and broken furniture. After they’d settled the cannister, Virgil’s father stood tall and shielded his eyes from the sun. “Tell her we don’t want a divorce. Tell her we’re fine.”

“Ed, come on in the kitchen, just please.”

He gazed up at his wife. Virgil sneaked a look. His father had become healthy-looking. Alongside a brown sunburn, a kind of blue had come into his eyes, the original blue she must have married him for, among other mysterious attractions, back when popular music was limited and breasts were pointy and hairstyles were big, so people fell in love under those deluded influences, and even married under those deluded influences.

“Virgil?” his mother was holding the screen door aside, “We’ll want you here for this too.”

The visitor came to the doorway. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Carol.” Carol was prematurely grey-haired, a warm woman, a careful woman, radiant in face, wearing a heavy powerful necklace.

Ed Sproehnle snatched the stocking cap off his head and stuffed it in his side pocket. The two males trudged up into the house as if the jig was up.

“I’m extremely pleased to meet you, Virgil. I’ve heard all about you. You know I love your goat,” said Carol. “I understand he ate all the underwear!”

“‘She,’” Virgil’s mother said.

“Looks like maybe she is having trouble digesting it,” said Carol.

It was true, the canvas skin over her hipbone twitched. Certain muscles had been making reproductive-looking spasms all morning.

“She eats everything, Ed. She got everything on the clothesline, and then she ate the actual laundry basket.”

“I think she’s a good idea in the long run,” said Virgil’s father.

Everybody was taking up positions around the kitchen table, not sitting down, just divvying up the terrain, and Virgil knew his loyalty would be called on now to help drive dad out of the house. “Pansy’ll go around and save everybody a lot of work,” his father went on. “While the gardener is temporarily absent, the blackberries and vetch are taking over back there. I can see the asparagus and lettuce bolting, because nobody takes any.”

“Well, yes,” Carol smiled. “That’s what-all we need to talk about.”

Virgil’s father pulled out a chair and sat down and said, “I don’t want a divorce.”

Nobody else sat down. His father stared at the table, and went on being the only one sitting.

“Well, now,” said the social worker, lowering herself into the chair across from him, with a sincere worried cuddle of herself, speaking gently, so Virgil had to respect her, because he could see, as a professional, she’d no doubt gone into situations where sometimes people could be dynamite. “I’m not here as Evelyn’s ‘legal’ representative in any way. Or representing anybody. I’m truly just here to get acquainted. All I ever do is get the communication process started. If people can just talk and speak their hearts, and just simply be clear…” She didn’t add all the obvious benefits openness can bring. It is a cure-all. She was absolutely right. His father was avoiding looking at her, so Virgil saw the basic problem again, it was cowardice, the man couldn’t face anything. Which Virgil sympathized with! He never faced anything, either. It was a hard job these women were undertaking, to scrape this man out of the house, working around his many, wily strategies of passivity. The Three Stooges had only just begun, but he was starting to admit to himself, it was unlikely he’d get back before it ended.

“This is not the time for this conversation, Miss…”

“Call me Carol, please,” she said, while one hand came out from beneath the table to press the ‘record’ button on the machine she’d brought.

“Evelyn?” he said to his wife. – Which made her take a seat. And Virgil, too, sat down along with the grown-ups. Then his father laid out his main obstruction, “I just don’t think we’re down to fundamentals. Or ever are.”

“And the fundamentals are?” she snapped right away, because for years they’d talked like this, and she was tired of his idea of fundamentals.

“Like, say, people don’t always need a new car. Or any car necessarily, if they’re smart.”

“So the fundamentals are?” his mother repeated. The car wasn’t a fundamental.

“We gave vows and got married. That’s fundamental,” he said, folding his arms, so his body condensed and he got smaller on this point. Virgil remembered a time, years ago, when he compared marriage vows to a kind of husk that never rots, but remains standing while the vows’ original utterers may decay along with everything else, or even eventually die, miserably. It was a mean picture of love: the survivorship of an empty legal formula, standing alone, non-biodegradable.

He went on, “We may not have everything perfect. In life, I know, people think they need to get what they think they want.”

The complexity of his own wording, there, made him pause.

He added, “You know something, then? Maybe nobody’s perfect.”

No, he wasn’t “lazy.” He was the opposite, he was all too diligent, awake before dawn, limping, bustling – he just always picked the wrong things. He stayed home learning how to fix the gears on an antiquated bike where you can’t get parts anymore. So you undertake to make your own parts, as if that were a great privilege, conferred only upon the lucky and the wise: to grind away with a file on bits of metal in the garage. Ed Sproehnle just couldn’t lift his vision to bigger things. He wasn’t stupid, either: he was smart: something like a ten-speed bike is a complicated thing to figure out. Rather it was a kind of resolve of staying safe inside a kind of ineptitude, a kind of guile, an overdependence on his family and this weedy scene, coming over and making Virgil dig post-holes, or glue PVC pipes, or go out on a camping trip with rented fishing poles. The way things were going, “The Three Stooges” would be over and also much of “Fantasy Island.” But he ought to be patient because this was important.

Carol said, “May I call you Ed? ’Cause that’s an excellent point. Married couples do need to agree on how their value-choices can differ. And you’re right, Ed, lifestyle choices can vary legitimately! However, you’ve got a child here. That changes things. If Virgil’s health and welfare are being endangered, then there’s a cause for changing things, making improvements, taking some action. Nobody wants anybody to be ‘materialistic,’ that’s where I’m on your side.” Her necklace was from some place like Africa, or Tibet – or, like, medieval Tibet, hammered in venerable filthy silver – and when he looked closer, her sweater, too, was from somewhere else, woven of blanket-thick fabric and dyed with natural colors dull and rich. The sweater might as well be from another planet. He realized it was, too, it was from the exotic planet “Earth.” Whereas this place, Terra Linda, it was more like the artificial planet.

“Virgil’s health?” his father made a laugh that snorted. It was an accident but it was an evil sound. His father had never made a scornful noise in his life. “When I was living here Virgil ate fresh vegetables and he wasn’t…” he gestured, “combing his hair in a pompadour.”

Now he had come out in the open showing an uncalled-for meanness, also unlike him. Carol from the County would help keep him away for good. It was for the long-term benefit of everybody.

“Ed,” Carol said, “You abducted Virgil on a school day and tried to take him to Mendocino County. That’s a problem we’ll have to address. That is an example of a threat to Virgil’s welfare.”

“I’m his father, I don’t think I can ‘abduct’ him.”

“Yes. You can. Yes.” She seemed truly sorry to have to tell him. “Of course you don’t mean any harm, we all know you meant it as a fishing trip, but it’s a form of parental irresponsibility. Virgil should be in school. And during the period when you were living here, this house was in constant violation of any number of serious environmental health codes and building codes, and sanitation and safety and truancy codes that are designed to protect growing children.”

Everything she was saying was just technicalities, quoted from somewhere, but they could matter a lot. A good example that came to mind was his father’s rules against turning on the electric space-heaters. And also how the whole family got skin-chigger wheals, which was something nobody else in school had even heard of. Nowhere else, in all of Marin County, were there skin-chigger wheals. Except at the Sproehnles’ house.

Carol said, “There are responsibilities a legal guardian has. In particular, creating an environment where a young person’s education and development won’t be impeded. You know that’s true as well as I. You’re a father. You’re a father and you want the best for Virgil.”

She was good at her job. He was always saying he wanted to get back to fundamentals, but he never saw his own selfishness. He always pretended it was unselfishness. Selfishness was what it was. Now he sat there in a whole new condition.

“Virgil?” said his mother, “Would you be willing to say that your health and welfare are endangered? I mean, say it to a person in authority, for example? Or say it on a written form?”

This was why he had to be present.

Having his father live here wasn’t precisely “dangerous” or “unhealthy,” it was just that life was so much better and easier now. It was just him and his mother.

Wielding this power, he looked out the window at the yard that had been trampled to dust by the goat. If he thought about it, it was true, he’d been deprived of normalcy, for example a normal social life, because he didn’t want to bring friends to the house. And he used to have to labor at hazardous, prickly jobs in the yard, where sometimes he got all scratched-up, and there was the infection he got when they did their own septic-tank pumping. The whole septic tank was a disaster, the whole ongoing winter-long siege, with the open hole, the tarps in the rain. That would have been definitely a violation of environmental safety codes. The year when they got chiggers, the Sproehnle cure was pine sap and witch hazel. Instead of real medicine. Nobody else in school had so many chores and he couldn’t do his homework sometimes, so he might end up badly prepared for life, or possibly not even graduate, which was something the County would consider a deprivation. So he shrugged and nodded and said he’d be willing to testify. These were all technicalities, but they weren’t merely technicalities. They were reasonable. They were important distinctions.

His father was watching his one hand rub the other, it hadn’t changed in all these years, the hanging Vietnam-shaped wrist. He had a funny expression, as if, in being beaten at last, he felt triumphant.

But his mother. He’d never seen his mother cry, but now in silence, the puzzle-pieces of her face were starting to drift apart. Meanwhile she seemed to look at something far away. She never wanted to be put in this position, she never meant to turn out to be this vindictive person, as she so often said, Ed kept putting her into the position of being the bad one, and the practical one. The County lady was looking out the sliding-glass door into the yard.

Virgil’s quiet yes might not have printed on the tape-recorder. He wondered if he ought to say it again louder.

Carol chirped, “Oh. I’m sorry. Your goat is. Excreting an animal. I mean it’s definitely not a baby goat being born.”

Everyone looked outside. Or even lifted a little off their chairs. Pansy had slipped free of her tether again. She was standing right outside the sliding-glass door, asking to come inside, staring hard.

Carol said, “It looks like a colorful animal. But I guess of course it’s… not an animal of course. Ha ha ha ha.”

There was something blue hanging from Pansy’s far end, something like a crushed lampshade, or a jacket, something she had eaten, with slats of commercial blue that alternated with goldenrod-yellow. It wasn’t an animal, it was definitely fabric.

His mother sat back down, covering her mouth. “Oh my God, it’s Darlene Gutstorb.”

It was a skirt. It was a cheerleader’s skirt, blue and gold, T.L.’s school-spirit colors, in heavy pleats of blue that parted to reveal gold. The fabric hadn’t been digested, still bright as merchandise on a store shelf, but besmirched by the intestinal tars in a goat. Which had failed to dissolve it, or even dim it. The woman from the County stood up, and she clutched the amulet of her necklace.

Virgil’s mother explained, “She got loose yesterday and she got through the fence into the Gutstorbs’. Oh, God, poor Helen Gutstorb is going to die.” She looked at her husband, “Ed? Now that goat goes back to the farm where it belongs.”

She looked up at Carol, who was still on her feet keeping a white-knuckled grip on her necklace pendant.

Virgil’s mother explained, “The cheerleading skirt was in Helen’s garage, it was something she was saving. Darlene Gutstorb the girl died years ago.”

Carol’s fist began tapping her chest. Her eyes searched in old distances. “I remember that. Oh! That was awful. That was just so sad.”

“It was hard on the Gutstorbs. They were never the same. Now it’s just Helen. She’s by herself.”

All eyes turned to the blue-and-gold pleated skirt debouching from the goat. Moment of silence. Virgil remembered the Darlene Gutstorb story. She drowned at a faraway water park called Sun Splash.

“That suit has been in their garage. Poor Helen. She already stays inside all the time.”

Pansy stood spraddle-legged outside the glass door. A serene challenge in her eyes. A Mona Lisa smile. Ever since Pansy arrived, they’d stopped opening that door at all, because she would walk right in. And when you got near Pansy, she liked to lean against you and press her entire weight and twist. Nobody would want to come anywhere near the undigested fabric gleaming with the occult salve of a goat’s bowel. How long would it take for the whole skirt to be born? For the duration, people couldn’t go in the backyard.

“Darlene Gutstorb,” murmured Carol remotely, seeming to speak now from the vantage point of her desk in the County building, the big pink structure beside the freeway. There, the woman would have a rational, orderly, comfortable life. “That poor mother. Do you know what I’d like to know? Really? How can heaven allow such terrible meaningless things to happen to people?”

Virgil’s father threw an arm over his seatback and slid around to sit profile-wise, in the chair where he’d been defeated. It was an odd swing ninety degrees to a new cardinal direction, and it called attention back. Back to the shared job of putting an end to his visiting rights. People would have to ignore the goat. It could go on watching through the glass. The man massaged his bad hand, deep in thought. He had been disarmed of his idea of “fundamentals.”

“You know what I thought, when you said that? When I saw that thing?” said Carol. She held her necklace amulet again and started almost laughing. “When you said, Oh my god it’s Darlene Gutstorb. What could I think?”

Nobody was laughing. But it was funny, and Virgil looked around and snickered, the unfortunate snotty clog in his laugh lately. He liked Carol from the County. She had a young person’s sense of humor.

She went on, “And then you said, ‘Uh-oh, Darlene’s mother is sure gonna be mad!’ What could I think?”

His parents weren’t thinking of this as funny. Neither of them was even listening. His father stared straight forward in his new orientation. His mother’s eyes scurried back and forth.

His father then stood up. Unable to look at anybody, he said, “I guess we have what you’d call an understanding.” So he was going to go.

But he didn’t go anywhere, he just stood there.

The goat, at last, turned away from the glass doors. It was attracted by the old dandelions in the pavement. Darlene Gutstorb’s plastic skirt was on the point of being released. One bunched hem was still in the grip of the anus. With that on display, it walked out of sight, browsing, ambling. Carol from the County looked at Virgil’s mother, and she started putting her things away: a yellow legal pad went into her shoulder bag; the tape recorder would go next. “The Three Stooges” was probably over but this had been a necessary job, an important job, and it took less than a half-hour. All they had needed was for Virgil in his authority as a child to speak the word Yes.

However, the goat came around the other way, indoors. She was standing in the kitchen.

How can cloven hoofs be so silent? It had come straight through the open garage rear, then by the connecting door into the kitchen, its fancy feet on the vinyl tiles. Its little mouth seemed always to smile.

The slimy skirt had fallen. It was outside somewhere.

Still, they all got up and moved away. They got into the living room together, far from the goat’s eyes and broad forehead. Where was Virgil’s father? He left by the front door and he was gone already, still wearing his pink tweed jacket, too hot for this summer day. He’d formally dressed up for this encounter, as if he might have known it was coming.

Carol said, “Oh, Evelyn,” clutching her big purse, “You have a predicament here.” It was her way of saying she was going to leave anyway. And be no help.

“We’ll handle this, Carol. Don’t worry, go ahead, we’re done. Thanks, thanks for everything.”

“Why not call Animal Control or the police? Where on earth did your husband go?”

“We’ll be able to shoo her out of here,” his mother said. Carol was moving to the front door, and she pulled up her bag’s shoulder-strap.

“She’s not dangerous?”

“Pansy’s not dangerous. She’s just impossible.”

The goat, then, appeared in the living room doorway, following everybody, with sociable curiosity. One long ear flipped.

“Virgil and I will put her out the back door,” she said, meanwhile rushing Carol out the front. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” But Virgil pictured outcomes very differently: he knew this goat, and he knew it could herd them from room to room, and that’s exactly what started happening. Once Carol was headed for her County car (her hand deep in her big purse groping, the husband and father-figure nowhere visible out on Robinsong, not in either direction), they went back inside. And they closed the front door and turned to face Pansy. She’d gone back in the kitchen. They could hear what sounded like peeing in there, and she was standing with a stream of urine plunging to the floor beneath her, while making a statue of herself, facing forward and waiting. From her rectum, now, hung some kind of drooly string.

But his mother was brave. She actually walked into the puddle of goat pee, arms outstretched. The goat stood its ground. When she made to embrace its neck, it walked easily through the necklace of it, and went straight toward Virgil, seeing Virgil as a source of fun, and Virgil moved away. It was shameful to be afraid, but this was a hard-headed, happy, large, reckless animal. His mother tried to follow it, and hold its neck again, but it popped up suddenly tall on its back feet: it must have smelled coffee cake because it stood up and put both its front feet on the kitchen table. One hoof banged a couple of times. Nothing but crumbs there – but still, its bearded chin glided around on the tabletop. Then it stretched and, with its teeth, pulled one paper napkin from the chrome dispenser. And dropped it.

His mother retired into the living room and sat down. Virgil stayed for a minute watching the goat pull out another napkin.

Then he went and joined his mother on the couch in a new bewilderment they shared now like a new marriage.

When the amiable Pansy appeared in the living room doorway, they got off the couch and went to the den, or the bedrooms, or somewhere in that general direction. Pansy mounted the couch itself, her feet sinking in the cushions.

So now, obviously it was going to go on like this. While they tried to think of ways of getting her out of the house, they had to keep moving. Pansy kept following and they kept slipping away from her, out of whatever room they’d been in.

– And that was the point where Mischal stops the reel.

His razor is poised –

He pulls the filmstrip up – advancing it to a frame marked by the pinch of his thumb – and he holds it down on the editing block, to make a neat diagonal cut. Angels’ work is almost done. The fresh reel is on the B-spindle: he drags its free end to the block, to slip the tractor-holes onto the cleats; the frames are aligned; he makes a complementary slanting cut, then presses a band of tape at the splice to join it.

The whole strip can be threaded back in place over the projector-lamp, the hot blaze in its cup. He feeds its tractor-holes into the sprocket teeth.

And starts cranking manually. History resumes at the point where Virgil and his mother were standing out front, on the sidewalk in the evening dusk, each with arms folded. By the goat, they’d been evicted from their own house. This was the memorable part. The front door had been wide open all afternoon. They’d gone around and propped open every door and every window – trying to leave Pansy plenty of exits. And throughout, the boy and his mother weren’t speaking about what had happened with Carol from the County – the little legalistic moment when he’d spoken the word Yes. They were standing together outside viewing the house from the curb, as if they were considering buying it. The air outside had grown cool. Dark was coming on.

He went ahead and spoke, of what he was not supposed to have thought about. “Now you can get a divorce.”

His mother wasn’t going to cry. That minute was long past. And many good dry-eyed years lay ahead. Now, with twilight, there would be lamps appearing along the street. She was still wearing the same apron she wore when she was serving coffee cake to the County lady. Virgil his ankle-zippered boots. He hadn’t once stepped in goat pee, he’d succeeded always in getting around it.

She set out on a short speech of explanation. “Sometimes, Virgil, there’s a cliff. People fall off. People just don’t always say honestly there’s a cliff right there, but it’s right there, all the time. And there are times, if somebody’s going to fall off of it, you have to let it happen. It can be people close to you. Not just ‘anybody.’ It can be really somebody. And if they’re going to go over…” She glanced at him, arms still folded. “There really is a cliff in life. You’ll find.”

Virgil mostly kept looking forward at the house. “He’ll be okay. Really he will.”

His mother, too, put her eyes on the house.

“He has the Knack for Happiness,” he pointed out, quoting one of his father’s favorite expressions. It was Ed Sproehnle’s wonderful Knack for Happiness that put everyone else in shadow.

His mother wasn’t going to be consoled. “I have my whole life, Virgil. He’ll be okay. He really will,” she said.

As if she hadn’t heard Virgil say the same thing, just now.

The time for tears, however, was definitely over. She unfolded her arms and put her hands in her apron pockets, and she led the way back up the walk. It was dark now, and it was time to really face the goat. He followed and they both stood on the doormat, looking into the exposed living room. Pansy wasn’t to be seen, or heard. The string of guck might still be hanging. It was hanging there all afternoon. Virgil went in first. In the master bedroom, they found no evidence of her. Everything looked undisturbed. In the bathroom, she had sampled the toilet-paper on its spool.

The toothpaste tube had been chewed flat. Her molars had ground holes in the vinyl tube material. She definitely liked toothpaste.

They could hear her in the kitchen, then.

In the kitchen, the goat was kneeling sphynx-like. The butter dish beside her on the floor had been licked gleaming clean. When she saw the two humans looking in, she got up on all fours and ambled toward them, her stubby tail flipping, her head lowered, and they escaped to the outdoors again, again into the front yard.

Pansy didn’t appear in the open door. Though they waited.

They didn’t want the neighbors seeing them like this – Mrs. Gutstorb and the Savellis and the Paschkes. Or want the Animal Control truck to come and make a scene. Or police cruisers to be parked out front. They went back in the house. It was getting cool, and they really would have to stay in.

And they stayed inside after that. The goat would find her own way out eventually.

They turned on all the lamps as usual. They drew the drapes over the windows, so nothing would be noticeable. And they began to live this way, picking up after her, keeping to other rooms, listening to sounds through walls. The string of guck was, in fact, gone. No evidence of it was anywhere. Goat droppings, luckily, are dry black capsules. Pansy’s were so neat they looked polished. Whenever she appeared in a doorway, they got out of that room. Eventually they would find someone who would take her, and they could begin the major clean-up. They could scour all the floors and launder the slipcovers, and they could rent one of those carpet shampoo tools at the supermarket. And throw away a couple of rugs. And then go shopping together. And get a number of new things, things they’d needed for a long time anyway, and splurge a little bit.

Mischal stops the situation there. He finds an empty take-up reel to substitute on the spindle. He locks it down. And turns the cranks in reverse, familiar old hand-motion of stirring.

When it’s all on the take-up reel, he winds on the last few feet of leader film and presses down a bit of sticky tape. He encloses the reel in a library can. He sets the seal of his Office on its rim and lays it in the flat case, and the lid comes down. The flat’s two crosswise webbing-straps must be buckled – and it can be sent up in the dumbwaiter. A Guardian Angel’s ministrations in the Old Dispensation can be finished. He is, in fact, hungry. He may still be bloated but he would like to try his usual breakfast, here in a conceivable Heaven. He heaves his weight up out of the chair, grateful indeed for the whole idea of bodily weight, which, as a creature here, he may continue to wield in the embrace of gravity, on an airborne cloud, for a little longer while he tarry – with a hunger for more than merely breakfast – a hunger for the company of his fellow-Officers in this place, Hokhma and Boaz – a desire to spend time among them – and a desire just to look down, during all the rest of this great Eschatological day, and watch from this cloud, this cloud he has, in the time of one mortal lifespan, come to love as home, a roughly island-shaped white heap, forever accumulating more cottony vapor on the Pacific side, while on its leeward side the edges are always tearing away in wisps, like a sandbar that keeps sifting but stays stable – really just to look down and feast his eyes on the tan-and-blue planet, the great ball-shaped place, the sudsy enzymatic salivary sheen of it, the oceans’ crawling stationary whitecaps and the badge where the sun bounces off the Atlantic – a desire for this day like any other day – but particularly this auspicious day.



Virgil Sproehnle the man, fruit of evolution, culmination of history, alone with his wineglass and a handful of itty-bitty crackers, was edging down the forest slope to the riverbank in the great liberty of this afternoon. He’d been sent away from the campsite by the two women.

And it was a perfect day now, because everything had gone peaceful, all the upper breezes were stilled. A characteristic scent had taken over – warm soil, pine resin – the whole forest’s vast church murmurous with an intelligent and rather urban traffic of insects and birds and frogs, little mammals, the knock of a beak on wood. This tract of land happened to be only a few miles downstream below the old Dominy Dam itself, and it cupped a perfect climate. No breeze could be felt, but a steady push of air made one leaf, in a nearby glade, keep nodding okay, okay, okay, okay. In all the forest, this leaf was the only membrane sensing air motion. Everything else was still. It kept saying (and obviously had been saying, long before Virgil noticed it): yes, yes, yes, yes. Okay, okay, okay, okay…

He stopped for a minute on the slope, to let the wine in his glass stop rocking and fall to level. Which seemed to take forever.









Okay, Okay, Okay, Okay




So he’s standing there with his wineglass in the woods, at a point in his life where he can think.

And sometimes an old taken-for-granted, basic “hypocrisy” underfoot will revolve up into a man’s notice and not only amaze him but also put him in his place, rather gratefully. And one obvious fact about himself, which he’d always half-known, was that his comfortable existence was built on a particular missing ingredient: Isobel’s peace of mind.

Which was his responsibility. And always was. A man can live long enough to reach an age of remorse. And maybe see he’s been capable of dishonesty all these years. And there’s no time like the present, so today would be the day of going ahead and being honest and telling her he’d always known, and he’d always made allowances. And that he’d always somewhat sympathized, as a matter of fact. Which, hopefully, she wouldn’t see as weakness, but rather strength.

It was too early in the day, here, for a glass of red wine to have come to hand; its profound excellence repelled him, the birch smell of its newness to oxygen, the swamp smell of its great age. Sipping from it might lend him the courage, or, more accurately, the right recklessness, to go into it with her, the years of her unfaithfulness, her possible sense of shame. He had stopped on the riverbank’s steep slope, where it was necessary for his feet to take extremely small nibbles of forward progress. For he’d changed back into his old Top-Siders with smooth soles. Pebbles and twigs might roll underfoot, and he would have no free hand to save himself, while carrying wine and crackers. His left hand, single-handedly, sorted out a single square cracker. He bit into it, standing there, and he chewed it diligently.

He might as well get serious about making himself comfortable. With the heel of his shoe, he could grind a flat place in the dirt to put the glass down safely. Meanwhile, he spilled out his crackers onto the dome of a little boulder. The original Indians here didn’t have such problems. Like an Indian, at last, he folded his legs and sat at the kindling of his ankles, out-of-place here, an urbanized human. In the open, natural world, a city-dweller’s regularly snubbed vision can range deep and free. Far off, a ribbon of fluorescent green was tied to a brand-new stake. All those, now, would have to come out. That same leaf in a middle-distant glade went on nodding assent, okay okay okay okay, at the same constant rate. Everything else in the canyon was motionless. In the entire forest, that leaf was the only thing sensitive to the ebb of air. Cool atmosphere flowing down.

Or warm atmosphere flowing up. Whatever.

Someday soon, there would be asphalt paths, parking lots with traffic markings, excavation for storm drains and underground cables. He’d been told Interstate 80 might need to add an entire interchange. When it was only him and his thirty-six houses, the County hadn’t required anything special. Now the federal government was here. A single cloverleaf, they say, needs six to ten acres. For all he knew, a road might pour through this very spot where he sat. His dearest heartbreak was Sheila’s youth, and her allegiance to the future, where one day he wouldn’t be present. In recent weeks, the real Sheila had been coming out – authoritative, opinionated, the Sheila he’d met two years ago in a waitress uniform, moving macaroni salad with a big spoon, a green denim apron lassoing her hips. Now, with the Perpetuity project, the whole situation was liberating her. She so loved the science. She loved the words, the jargon. With their graspable handles, the words furnished the world she wanted to swing through. She seemed to love the pure scariness of the future, with bravery like an astronaut, as articles kept arriving at the house and she read every page, every last footnote, and she made notes and she sent away for further reading. Whenever she tried to explain the biology of “cellular athanasia” to him – sitting up in bed, her bare arms lifting and making unpacking motions in describing all the billions of souls who would mount to eternity – all he could think, looking into her eyes, was that those eyes, with their deep brown irises, they were the unvisitable planets.

Maybe it was just lazy of him (or even just timid), but he personally was content not to have to face the prospect of, one day, living forever in spaceships. Or whatever the plan was. He was evolved here for this ecosystem and this limited cozy, short lifespan, like a koala-bear in its eucalptus grove. He with his well-shod feet, and his wine in a stemmed glass. Picturing Sheila’s billions of deathless souls colonizing space, with no individual ever dying, an odd kind of loneliness seemed to inhere in everybody’s eternal acquaintanceship in space colonies, an acquaintanceship that would have to keep expanding over aeons and aeons, even among people who might not have chosen each other ordinarily – because of how inevitable they’d all be, to each other. Imagine that: they’d all be inevitable to each other. And each one would be inevitable to himself, too. Imagine being forever inevitable. Something like that could be a kind of hell. Or, maybe it could be a kind of bliss, too, depending, but he somehow doubts it. Anyway, fortunately, none of it was for his lifetime, it was for distant generations, and it was all imponderable, too. And every indication was, the whole thing hadn’t yet become solid science. The lab techniques hadn’t been tested much, and for that matter, the theory behind it seemed still unshaped. He recognized PR when he saw it, and NASA and Perpetuity and Ars Longa, right now, were in the promotional, developmental stages. And Virgil, he wasn’t in the buzz business any more. At his feet, the water in the Lower Artemisia flowed over smooth rocks, here on his home planet, in these typical California forests, so Carboniferous-looking with their dragonflies and their columnar treetrunks and their fiddlelhead ferns. The koala-bear picture of a lifespan: it does fit.

His hand at last lifted the wine’s radiance toward his face. At this early hour of the day, a cabernet sauvignon’s atmosphere was too recondite, but he inclined it anyway, and kissed where the little shore met the rim. The empurplement would stain through the palate and hit the brain-pan fast. He always did get everything he ever wanted. The special knack of happiness lay in this trick: pretending to yourself you didn’t have everything; actually believing it; actually thinking yourself dissatisfied, and being dissatisfied. “Happiness” was a spark that passed in that gap. In the Artemisia River at his feet, a fresh flow flooded around the bend, as if something had been relieved upstream. It flowed higher around the round rocks. And distinctly louder.


It was his wife calling his name.

He would hang onto his glass, but he could leave the crackers. There were plenty more crackers at the trailer. He stood up and clapped the dust off his pants. Let little furry woodland creatures have the crackers. He called out to her that he was down by the river, and he started coming up.

She was standing above, saying something about dinner, her bathrobed silhouette at the top of the path, while he toiled up the slope. Brave Isobel, trying now for pregnancy.

And she was about to be ambushed by some news: that leniency had stood beside her always. Leniency had been lying in bed beside her. Leniency had been waiting and watching patiently. Leniency had been faithfully married to her. She’d always felt the opposite, within her own bones, unforgiveness – and along with that, some kind of hopelessness, fundamental mysterious hopelessness. He’d perhaps made a mistake, in not confronting her about it from the start. Now was the time to change that, come what may. Climbing the path to the campsite, he thus sensed his own arriving in the clearing as triumphant.

She’d gone ahead of him and plopped herself back down in the camp chair.

Palace Caravan had set up a standing wet-bar and he put his glass of wine there. Pouring himself some water, it felt ceremonial, with his back turned to her, like a doctor before he administers his medicine. He would go ahead and tell her. The time had come to grasp the electrical positive and negative poles that had been kept apart so long at opposite ends of the universe, and connect them, and just see what happens.

So when he had established himself in a camp chair, with his glass on his knee, he made his approach. “Watching you at the barn today – I guess you’re still not exactly utterly, wildly delighted that we’ll be storing your paintings.”

She warded off that insight. “It’s not just the barn, it’s the whole place.”

In this, she was referring to her more general opinion, that they shouldn’t have any residence up here at all. If this was going to be mostly a big government operation, she didn’t want to spend any time living next to it.

He said, “You’re a board member, we have to make trips up here. It’s our thing. And look around. It’s nice. It’ll stay nice.”

But all this was an evasion.

“Sweetheart,” he said. “Life is too short, to be unhappy.”

She gave him a little glance, because he was getting around to something.

“There are really no obstacles for us,” he said. “And never were, really. Never were.”

He was being cryptic. His reference to their past caused an inward alarm that she disguised, bending over to set upright the box of her oil paints that had fallen to one side. He’d gone all the way to the car for them, but she hadn’t opened it. She wouldn’t, either. Painting in the presence of others was impossible. It was in vain for Sheila to have packed art supplies.

Inside the trailer, the shower stall’s walls were making bump sounds. That would be Sheila. She would have brought Milton in the shower with her. It meant he and Isobel would have plenty of time alone out here.

He went ahead, “What makes you so sad, darling?”

She was trapped. She gave him a sharp mistrustful look.

In that expression of defenselessness, her entire confession might be predestined. He waited. Because there was a tiny possibility that she might achieve this for herself: the purity of having come around to a confession on her own. Then he could tell her. How little it ever meant anyway. How he’d always loved and watched her. The whole marriage would be rewritten. As a story of fidelity, actually. Rather than any “infidelity.”

In the trailer bathroom, the convivial remarks of Sheila meant that Milton was, yes, showering with her, as he liked to do, sitting underfoot on the floor of the shower stall.

“You’ve been so sad,” he kept going with this. “It’s really time, to make everything okay.”

His own heart was knotting up now. Now he almost wished he hadn’t started anything serious.

She took a long drink of her ginger ale while keeping her eyes on him. She seemed to think of comforting him, now. As if he were the troubled one. She said, “Don’t mind me. I’m not exactly sparkling, these days, but don’t mind me. This is just ‘Passing Forty And Being On Clomid and Fertinex.’”

So rather than going straight into anything, she was going to find a way around everything.

He said, “Looking back at the years before Sheila, though, personally I have no regrets. I’d do it all again, exactly the same. The whole marriage. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She looked at him. “Oh! Sheila? I’m crazy about Sheila. If that’s what you’re getting at, if you think it’s been hard for me adapting, or if you think I could be jealous, well, yeah, it’s unconventional, but honestly I can’t picture any other kind of life now, for the three of us. The four of us including Bob. I can’t imagine anything else. You and I, we were young together, and we kind of just let life zoom along. Maybe I seem sad ’cause I’m slowing down and wanting to enjoy everything and savor everything. In fact, you know what?” She looked at him. “If I’m peeved about anything – if that’s what you’re talking about – if I seem peeved, it’s just that I think you two are wrong about building a cottage up here. That’s annoying. The idea of building a home in the woods with a huge techno-business campus right next door. Who wants to live next door to that?”

He became brave with the help of a little impatience. Or even aggravation:

“Isobel? I want you to know something. I was always aware that you had certain friends. I know that when we lived on Chestnut, you had time on your hands and you had a few relationships that didn’t mean a thing, truly didn’t mean a thing, like they were just boredom. Maybe boredom with me. ’Cause, hey, I’m pretty boring, what the heck,” his palms patted the arms of his camp chair, fluttery little fish-fins. “Or just youthful-energy boredom. Without children as we are. As we were. I bring this up because I don’t want you to go on worrying and fretting and guilting around, about some old things that happened long ago and never meant a thing in the first place.”

Her brow had furrowed.

This wasn’t what she expected. Not at all. She looked, in fact, irritated.

“Years ago, we were both different people. As you say, we were young!” he found himself going on in some panic as if he were the one with problems. “And there can be restlessness. There can be little learning-curve things when people are young. And I’m willing to own a certain amount of responsibility, possibly, indirectly, for being the cause of any restlessness.”

She set her carbonated drink down on the uneven ground beside her, where it fell over, but she didn’t care. She seemed to intend to get up and do something. But then she just sat there, her eyes staring forward, while both hands gripped her knees.

“So the point is,” said Virgil. He had a distinct foreboding this was all starting to slide off wrong. It had slid off wrong from the start. It might be a huge error in judgment, in some way he couldn’t have anticipated.

“The point is, I’ve always known, and I’ve always been patient, and you’ve always been forgiven, implicitly. And it’s truly no big deal.”

He left it like that. Now she would have to speak.

She said, “Always.”

She was weighing the concept of “always.” She had a certain grandeur in her way of being confused and irritated.

“Well, like, four or five different” – (he couldn’t say men, or affairs) – “situations.”

She glanced at him, then away again.

He got an odd idea. What if there were never any affairs? What if his imagination had systematically misinterpreted all the details over the years?

He said, “Well, since Carlton,” referring by name (the never-spoken name) to the musician from Oakland with an Audi, the first of her adventures, and the most distracting, the most time-consuming, the most awkward, the most “romantic” probably.

Impressed, she lifted her eyebrows while she kept looking far off aside.

“And on until the chiropractor,” he added, going straight to the last. In between, there was the windsurfing financial type who lived conveniently nearby in Laurel Heights and was always free each afternoon when the markets closed; the man from Marin who seemed to be a carpenter or something in the building trades; the visiting professional opera singer whose stint in San Francisco limited the affair to the duration of the opera season; and the elusive person in Berkeley, possibly a visiting academic. Those were the ones Virgil knew about. He’d never pried or investigated, or even wanted to know, but those were the bits of information that, over the years, had drifted across unavoidably.

“I brought it up now, because I don’t want you worrying about a problem, where there is no problem. I’ve known about it all along, and it’s not a problem. It was never a problem. We’re both bigger than it.”

She drew in breath, and she waited a minute, eyebrows impossibly high on her forehead. She said, “Well, of course we’re bigger than … ‘it,’” she let the word sink to a whisper.

At this, he couldn’t help but file away the fact that she didn’t exactly have the right to presume, quite so fast, or so early in the conversation, that anybody is bigger than anything. His tolerance and forgiveness were, as far as she was concerned, meant to be a gift, not something she could go ahead and dismiss as if it could be taken for granted.

But then she focused somewhat, tilting her head. “You say you were patient. Patient was the word you used.”

Yes, that was the form love took – or it was the form a bit of actual wisdom took – and he was glad she’d come down to that word, because patience was the essence of it, and it was never exactly easy, taking into consideration the years of wear on his own sense of justice.

She had turned and was looking at him then with a kind of mild surprise. And it contained perplexity but it also contained something like indifference. Or even tiredness.

In that expression, his marriage was over. It was over and couldn’t be put together again. And she knew it, too, because she stood up and began looking about her, to start picking up. Her hands were patting her hips, seeking pockets – where she might find car keys or money or a cell phone – but she was wearing her bathrobe. There were no pockets. Still, she kept patting to look for pockets.

“Sweetheart, what is it? What’s wrong? I’m trying to say I was always completely tolerant of that period. I was always waiting and patient. I’m trying to say everything’s fine.”

She walked in a circle, scanning around, looking for something. She was barefoot. Her running shoes were on the ground beside the trailer door, and she picked them up and sat down again in the chair, to put them on. This was a kind of crazy behavior. Where would she go, wearing a bathrobe and running shoes? She never did things like this. In those artistic fingers, as they dug at the shoelaces, there was a tremor. The baby and Sheila were still inside taking a shower, and now Isobel was going to walk straight away somewhere, either out into the forest, or up to where the car was parked. Wearing a bathrobe and running shoes.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he fairly commanded her. “Isobel, let’s talk. Where do you think you’re going?”

She stood up, and she laid her hands upon the fronts of her thighs and spoke loudly and distinctly, outward in the direction of the forest, framing a kind of question. “All the time, you ‘forgave’ me, and were ‘tolerant.’”

It was a formal indictment – but of him, not her. In an instant, he had somehow erased the years of their marriage. Not revised them. Those years were unrecognizable to him now. He was on his own. Always had been.

“Isobel, wait. Sit down. You can’t go anywhere. Look how you’re dressed. We’re here in the woods. Everybody’s in the shower, taking a shower, and they’ll come out and we’ll have dinner.”

He moved toward her – she was standing across the clearing’s open space – but she moved away from him. So he stopped and stayed were he was.

“Just sit down for a minute, because I need to understand this.”

So he said.

But the truth was, he wasn’t sure he wanted to, exactly, “understand” anything right now. She was the one who needed to understand something. Whatever his offense was, it seemed to be something that came naturally over the years and it was deeply part of himself. He wanted her, first, to come out and admit he’d done a good thing. Being generous, waiting. Waiting had paid off. Just look how waiting paid off.

Surprisingly, she did sit down, as he’d asked. In the chair. So she wasn’t going anywhere. But he could see something: It was possible for her to stay here physically because, mentally, she was already gone, the marriage was empty and she had flown away, high above it, in her own contemplations of the wreck. She was also taking her first views of her own strange new existence. He would never get her back. What they shared now, as husband and wife, was this long misunderstanding – this divorce, like a newborn they could learn to handle, from this moment forward – this new history opening behind them. Now, where she sat, she was being patient with him.

And possibly, most likely, Sheila would go with her.

Which meant Milton too: the child goes with the mother. He would have what the system called visitation rights. Oddly, he had the feeling he would get the house, the big house; which was the last thing he wanted. He wanted them. Instead, the three of them – because this includes Bob – they would find a different place elsewhere. Virgil would go on alone in the house. And of course sell it and get rid of it, right away, and still only want them back.

Then Sheila did come to the door. She put her face out, wearing a towel as a head wrap, seeing the scene. Isobel’s voice had brought her.

All he’d done was, he had told her he’d been patient and forgiving, and then his own wife had looked at him as if he were a stranger, so he suddenly was a stranger. Sheila was in the doorway, and Isobel was sitting there scanning the dust at her feet, rethinking everything. Then she stood up out of the chair, and got moving and went inside. Sheila opened the door wider to let her pass, and – sending one compassionate glance of bewilderment to Virgil – she followed her in and pulled the door shut.

Quiet words were exchanged inside. He heard the big satellite phone singing its electronic fanfare, being wakened. She would be calling for someone to come and get her – a taxi or limo from the town. He knew Isobel. He knew how she thought. That look of disappointment, it was permanent. This was a new fate that only she, as his wife, could have decreed.

The door opened. It was Sheila, now. She laid upon him a hard-to-read glance, then she ambled out – over the open scene, while looking around the clearing – and she came up and spoke low, “So, about her, you knew all along.”

As a summary, it understated the present problem.

She added, “There’s a taxi by the freeway at the Comfort Suites. It will take them about half an hour to get here and she’s pretty serious.”

He had only made a perfect policy of hopefulness and patience. Now he didn’t understand.

His not understanding was, precisely, the essence of the problem now. And his not understanding was exactly the right thing. He didn’t want to “understand” anything, he didn’t want anything explained to him. He’d done quite enough “understanding” over the years. Or pretended to. Now his innocence of any “understanding,” here, was as central to him as his breastbone – or his spine, or any such thing you can’t just take out, and dissect. He wanted to stay rather uncomprehending on this particular issue, rather brutally uncomprehending. It seemed right now everything in his entire blameless life had been leading up to this, preparing him, to deal this blow to this woman, it was like a kind of mission, he was a weapon, and he had been in deep storage like a weapon, so it was satisfying, to be liberated in the form of a “total stranger” and discover in himself a very rational, ethical stubbornness. She actually seemed not to see the basic concept, that for years she’d gotten real compassion and forgiveness, though she didn’t “deserve” it. Didn’t deserve it at all. It was a gift.

Her not caring about it meant, now, she wasn’t going to get it anymore. This now was the damage he alone could inflict exactly as she merited. He knew what would happen. In a few minutes, she would come out of the trailer dressed, and she would go up the long path to the car, to wait at the roadside. Virgil and Sheila would follow along behind, carrying Milton, too. They would all escort her up there, in the futility of pretending they could stop her. She wouldn’t say much, and when the taxi arrived, she would flag it down and get in and maybe say bye, and then in the days to come there would be separate arrangements, lawyers. The research-campus project here would be endangered. Actually, the research project would be entirely scrapped. Because the money would flow away, into divorce’s choppy channels. Then they would find a house excluding him, for example in the Berkeley hills, because Sheila always liked Berkeley. And Bob liked Berkeley. The two women and the baby and the old man would make a new kind of “family.” He knew all this for sure. It was all in that one look of hers, that one look of indifference and fatigue.

He went to the doorway. Without opening it, he spoke into the trailer:

“Isobel, it would be perfectly natural,” in a most tactful, peacemaking tone, “for you to feel ashamed.”

Then, from the riverbank, an amazing sound like an earthquake was rising. It was the sound of whitewater rapids. Something had happened. A different sound, too, was growing louder, a roar of rocky earthmoving. He could see through the trees. Tons of water. A small sea was coming around the bend. At the water’s crest, branches as big as trees were carried. They were actually trees. Entire trees. He somehow always knew this was coming. It was the dam. It was the Dominy reservoir.









Felix Culpa




All Heaven will know immediately, it is the Author and the Sustainer of All Things, the One Who includes eternity, Who can’t be comprehended within any single place. How wrong to think that He could be in one place, or could be altogether addressed. For He exceeds all times and places.

All beings of every Order will know, He is greater than any Angel, and greater than any place. For He made all places and times, once by His terrible Hand. Now again He is risen.[33] For the Lord Creator is not Answerable. In this hour, all Heaven is darkened and quaking, and if a cherub had somewhere been capering, it has run and hidden. If a fawn or a bunny were browsing beside still waters, it has been frightened into the hedges. For the Lord in all His power has been restored. At the black shores of Hell, any penitent Demons, and any Devices and all the hated souls and dark angels, will all have fled, vanished to outer darkness again, without lingering to extenuate, or to inquire, or to explain; as if they were willing to believe this was somehow their fault. Because that was always their way.

Thousands of thousands of black wings darken the firmament all fleeing toward the cave. Darkness covers all the Choirs of the Hierarchy and the crystalline domes and the fancy castles of pink marzipan. Darkness the groves of Paradise. Darkness the fountains. Darkness the sky-borne mountain of quartz-like candy. Upon the Guardian Angels’ cloud, the two Cadets Hokhma and Boaz are almost – perversely, strangely – thrilled to be held back from perfection at last. These are events not under the control of any Angelic Order. The two of them crouch at the the edge, to see the scene in Earth below. The bright, spilled water of the reservoir invades the valley of the Artemisia. Tons of lifted litter are pushed before the flood in a huge dirty rolling plug, while the dam in the higher canyon continues to pour water. It hasn’t let its entire wall fall. The lake pours from a great notch.

Their mortal man, in a forest clearing far downstream, has responded to the danger by dodging. He’s behind the trailer. There he is, back there cowering. When Sheila and Isobel come out of the trailer, Sheila is carrying the baby in a hug. A little treetrunk, getting snapped off, makes an amazing bang like a gunshot. Not far off, debris pushed by water rolls against the dense forest. As for Isobel, the woman who sacramentally is Virgil’s wife, she says nothing at all, she just starts up the path. Virgil Sproehnle, in the midst of this, finds a small part of himself to be inexcusably grateful, because this – this! – is actually a better problem than his own life.

So they all start uphill to the road, walking fast, lifting sometimes to a jogging pace. There’s nothing they need to bring. The mother has the baby. Virgil raises his voice, “That algae is going to get into the water system,” putting it out there just for the record.

Also, he can’t help but reflect that they just put most of their fortune into the purchase of these acres that now will be damaged incalculably. And there’s the bridge loan. Legally it isn’t the government’s property yet. It’s their property, and it’s their problem.

Both the women are ahead on the path and Sheila contradicts him, over the sound of the flood, “The algae’s dead by now.” She is saying what’s patently untrue, and Virgil knows it. The algae is going to go all through the water system. Wherever there’s concrete to eat into. But this isn’t the moment to argue about that. Beneath the obstacle of a rock face, the path has to descend.

The new, loud freight train continues to flash past through the trees beside them. One tree seems to slowly spin in place, it’s actually rotating, then it lies down spinning – because at the new shore, a great floe of earth is breaking off. The thunderous stage of the flood seems to be subsiding. And now there’s a new, strange sound, a steady gurgling. That sound doesn’t belong among these big trees.

There it is, ahead. The strange brown surf in the the forest has covered the path, moving along. They’ll have to do a little wading, and Virgil considers his leather loafers.

“We’re not going through there,” says Sheila. She takes the lead, veering uphill off the path, carrying the baby. The baby is going to start crying. His face is starting to tighten.

Virgil says, “I’ll take him,” and he reaches for him because he can get heavy.

Sheila actually does hand the boy over, and Virgil will always be grateful for that.

She was smart to lead them uphill. People do get swept away when they’d thought they were only wading a few yards. That’s how people die. So they’re going up through brush – some thorny blackberries – though the women are bare-ankled. His wife Isobel, she’s simply hiking along in a strange state of private resolve. He can’t resist keeping an eye on her. She has said nothing. Maybe her exit route happens to lie alongside theirs, but she’s not really with them anymore, staying far ahead, she’s traveling in a parallel moral universe where this flood isn’t quite so audible.

Virgil realizes again, this flood isn’t going to solve his problems. A catastrophe isn’t going to distract from the rest of his life.

But Angels on clouds can see something mortals can’t. The entire dam will drop. The notch has been eroded. The entire cement wall explodes out at its foot. At the base, for some reason the whole thing bursts at its thickest point, at its bottommost foundation – so the upper masonry drops into the released explosion of water. For an instant, it’s as if great chunks of concrete floated upon the sudden liquefaction of riverbed earth.

Far below, at the Sacramento River confluence, this valley empties out on the center of state government, old city of graceful trees and mowed lawns among levees, all built below the level of the cramped, lifted river, on the flat flood plain that is the agricultural valley of the west. From the height of Heaven, the rupture of Dominy Dam looks like a miniature spill in the dust. But down where mortals climb through thorny blackberry whips, the new little ocean will be overwhelming, hitting against cliff faces, boulder-chasing, it slowly leaps, and it very slowly sloshes, it combs upright cedars off their footings and tosses them in froth, it loiters inexplicably in a gradual whirl, then just as inexplicably, it swells, straight up in the canyon middle, clapping together, making a central leap toward the sky. Miles downstream, Virgil and the women can’t hear it yet.

As for a pair of confused minor Cadets on a cloud, they can be almost blissful in terror, in the grip of God’s will. The fate of two vain Cadets is a trifle. There is comedy in it, as their Mischal always did say. All the while, as the miniature apocalypse brims, the mountains below are lit by sunshine and beautiful weather. All during and after this catastrophe, birds still build their nests, ants their underground galleries. That will all go on for aeons to come. The flood is rounding another bend. It rolls and crashes, playful-looking, slow, halting, testing slopes, hesitating when swelling, surging in wrong directions in canyons, churning inwardly when it pauses and changes its idea. It’s as if the old man in his North Liberty cabin will have gotten exactly what he wanted, Bob Newton, the old prophet – (an Ayatollah-in-exile, that was how Sheila once saw him) – will have succeeded. He will have succeeded in bringing about the future he dreamed up while gazing into his word-processor’s opalescent screen. Succeeded all too well. Such a flood will destroy the water delivery infrastructure of California and much of the urban west. All this to bring a new age. Economic activity will fall near flat and never recover. The old waters of the Artemisia and its tributaries carry thousands of tons of silt poisoned with mining arsenic and mercury, which will lie like cement on the valley for centuries, and on the cities of the plain. There are 11.4 cubic miles of that silt, from all the canyons to be sluiced down. Once, a century ago in gold-mining operations, entire mountains of it were displaced, washed down, and it’s been stored in ledges and shelves in the riverbeds. When that mud over the valley dries and hardens, it will be like cement indeed. In the city of government beside the broad lazy river, to free a filing cabinet from the hardened mud, it will require mallets and pikes and pneumatic hammers.

Here it comes, the surf, uprooting boulders, it rolls around the canyon toward the campsite. Virgil and the women can hear the thing coming. At last it appears above them, where they can see it, the brown hill of water. They’d been protected from seeing it come, because there was an outcropping of rock. Then Isobel, too, sees the water coming. Turned, she looks into Virgil’s eyes, and Virgil into hers in paralysis knowing there isn’t time now to say anything, there’s only time to seek her eyes with his own. So at the moment before the water hits, he will be, by her gaze, photographed in history, while above them, the sparkling brown slope breathes in.











BOOK THREE: “Felix Culpa”









Everlasting Day



Over the mountains of North Liberty in the quiet afternoon, a hawk hangs in the blue, contentedly scanning for a little victim. The whitewater of the Artemisia River, viewed from a great height, is a motionless silent thread. The ample air of the canyon has a faintly golden character, from the smoke that’s been coming south all week from faraway seasonal wildfires. Birds build their nests. Ants their underground galleries. The peaceful, homestead sound of a pistol shot rises up out of the McEvoy place, and of course little Sage McEvoy will be sobbing somewhere, because she likes to get emotionally attached to every little calf, every doomed hen, though of course she eats roast chicken like a lion cub when it’s dinnertime. Further up the Lime Kiln ravine, the Steinbaums’ neighbors are building a slaughter floor, as their entire flock of lambs has come down with foot-rot scrapie. A handsaw there makes its wheeze as the sawyer’s elbow rises and falls – North Liberty was always a fastidious kind of neighborhood where power tools are scorned. Nowadays all the more, woodworkers prefer the quieter adze and plane and handsaw, brace-and-bit drill, plumb bob and spirit level, all the tools a carpenter from Mesopotamia would recognize, or old Judah. Could probably recognize and pick up and use, not needing a minute’s explanation.

The afternoon bell has long since rung at the North Liberty Schoolhouse. On a portable radio in the cabin dooryard, NPR is making its soft tempest-in-a-teacup sound. Goats in the valley are being herded, and whenever they stray, the voice of the herdsman Antonio chastens them in Mexican Spanish, the radiant language that seems to be mounting back up North these days, as European culture melts back up toward Canada in dark forests and recesses. The clank of a goat’s bell will carry surprising distances, from even below the creekfalls and the hydropower generator, down past where the famous yellow Lexus is parked, dead under the pines in its final resting place, beneath its accumulating layer of pine needles, dragonfly-wing forest filth, cobweb and silvery-black spore.

Sometimes from the cabin dooryard, the child Milton can be heard, with his Aunt Isobel, singing his song, about the itsy-bitsy spider who persists in climbing the garden spout. She keeps helping him with the last line, which he likes to pretend he forgets. A delicious smell has been coming downhill, the smell of tortillas, that peculiar palm-sweat human smell of cornmeal masa that never fails to make Virgil hungry.

And Virgil? Himself? He’s pruning a pear tree, wearing a T-shirt so old and holey, it’s like a web melting over his shoulders, and a pair of Bob Newton’s old pants from his schoolteaching days. He’s downhill in the pear orchard.

Because of course the famous flood of the Artemisia spared him. Him and Isobel and the boy. By a quirk of the slope, right there in that canyon, the avalanche of water – which for a moment loomed above them – bounced off an outthrust rock escarpment, so it twisted aside, to land below them. They were able to get uphill. But Isobel was the first one up, climbing a slanting, crumbly face, and Sheila was going to come after. Virgil handed the baby up to Isobel. So the baby was safe. Then Sheila got a start, but she lost her footing and went down twenty feet, where new water had flooded. Her grasp was torn from passing shrubs as she went. She never cried out, never made a sound, never fought the waters. But from the waters she did look back at them as long as she could – she seemed to be holding eye contact, until she was carried out of sight. Her baby wasn’t crying. He wasn’t even looking. In Isobel’s arms, he was winding his chubby fingers in her hair, more interested interested in the uphill woods. So he never saw his mother vanish.

All they did was, they stayed and watched where she’d disappeared – knowing that standing there wouldn’t help – and going for help wouldn’t help, either. She was moving away as fast as a car drives. On the way into the bigger rapids, she hit a tree backwards, hard, and from there on, something was wrong about how she was riding. Bobbing in braiding hills of water, she went around the bend.

After that, Virgil and Isobel weren’t running anymore. But they climbed, as if there were some place to go. There really was nowhere to go. It felt like, if anything, they could have just gone on staying where they’d last seen her. They did have a cell phone, but there was no cell contact, and the satellite hookup in the trailer was under water. Anyway it would have been hopeless. They’d seen what happened.

Old married couple, alone together after the two years of Sheila, they got to the road carrying the baby, knowing they were both thinking of the same thing: how far downstream Sheila would be carried already, at that rate of speed. And what condition her body must be in as she kept on going. Before she went out of sight, she had skidded hard, with a smash, against two successive boulders. Also – (Virgil can see this, these days, when he looks back) – he already then felt responsible for this, tangentially. Because he, in a sense, was. The inevitable idea of calling the police made him sick to think of. Nobody could help. They both knew they were watching her die while she was still going out of sight. In the car as they got it started and drove away, their new job was soothing the baby, who had begun to cry. Isobel was able to appease him by offering him pinched-off bits of an energy bar from the door pocket, while she herself trembled. Virgil also might have been trembling but a grip on the steering wheel stopped it. Sheila was the bright one. Sheila was the one who shed light and the one who had the great future.

The car keys had actually come to hand. They were right there in his pocket. Within a mile or two they were traveling on a sunlit road. It was a quiet road, with not the faintest thunder in the distance. Having come up out of the canyon’s afternoon shade, they discovered an earlier, sunnier, innocent hour of the day up here. And so they’d cheated time, gone back an hour or two, into a genuine world where there was no flood. It was at that point that Isobel began with a huge hoarse sigh that came out too hard. It was like a wind, or like some animal – inordinately loud – and it startled the baby, who turned to regard her with a curious horror, half amused. After that, she kept quiet, weeping. When they got to the main road, the colorfully painted taxicab passed, going the opposite direction. It was the cab Isobel had called, twenty minutes earlier. A chariot of a different fate. Virgil saw it but Isobel didn’t notice, or anyway she didn’t say anything.

Now here in a pear orchard in the higher Sierra, far from that, and far from the ongoing legal troubles, the man himself is safe and sound, standing in pale winter sun, in this arbitrary world of mysterious, inexplicable preservation of the trivial, wherever it sprouts – on a meadow slope below the cabin, standing beneath the umpteenth old gnarled pear tree, looking up at the woody branches and the summer’s shoots, a crick in his neck, hanging his tired arms loose, pruning shears in one hand, loppers in the other, dizzy from evaluating bare twigs against the sky all day. What he’s actually doing is waiting for the perpetual heart attack to subside. Just a stitch inside, it never does attack full-on, nor does it ever quite disappear. It’s usually not noticeable.

Pruning is hard on the arms, which must stay constantly upheld; and hard on the neck that keeps the head tilted back.

And pruning is hard on the eyes’ trusting retina: a sunbeam can attack right under his hatbrim if he, like right now, starts orbiting his tree on the slanted meadow to judge his work so far. He frequently stops to close his eyes and give them a rest. Stretching the opposite neck-muscles, he bows his head forward. This particular pear tree he stands before, an ancient one with iron arms, was overpruned last year. Then at fruiting it went unculled. So its fruits in October were overabundant and bland. The overpruning released, too, a rush of new foliage. All the trees’ bare branches are climaxed everywhere with hundreds of vertical whips, a tall crown standing on every tree in the orchard. The time has come to shift his ladder – its ancient traditional three-legged stance – and climb up into that little paradise again – and with his metal beak to cut exactly above the second, fortunate bud, snap it on a nice diagonal, letting the rest of the green flute fall. Take care of that one bud. The general idea is to open up the tree’s middle, to let in light and air. The weather all week has been cold, sunny, a perfect window for this.

It’s an art. It involves many little judgment calls. He has to keep climbing back down, seeing what he’s got so far. And this particular tree is hard to get around: one of its old branches does the strictly non-agricultural work of holding up one end of the clothesline. His ladder keeps bumping the clothesline no matter where he moves it.

Then the breeze drops and the radio dwindles and Milton begins singing his song again, the one about the spider going back up the garden spout; and out-of-the-blue, Virgil is checked once more by the heart, the heart’s tether-chain, it keeps him staked to the ground here, at the spot on Earth he will have come to know. In all seasons and in all weathers, this spot. He considers his tree. At the middle is a structure of old woody knobby branches. Which really will require the pruning saw. Anyway, he mounts up – into that little sky where, as he revolves, twigs poke at his face. And upon the second rung of the ladder, the unglued, floppy sole of his Top-Sider folds and catches, and his foot slips.

He goes straight to the ground, and he comes down on an ankle, where deep cartilage snaps. Gravity does act fast – way too fast for the reaction-time of a typical former PR man weighing 170, clumsy after a few hours’ work, because he’s in his forties and spent most of his life at a desk with a phone and a computer, and a bran muffin on a napkin, in his stocking feet all day, tabbing listlessly through his old paper-card Rolodex. Or, hand-on-mouse, Googling through the universe. He lets his head drop back and rest on the ground. Where he lies, Isobel and Milton are beyond the crown of the hill. Nobody would have seen him go down. Which is a good thing. His own display of competency around this place is a strategic part of the territory he has staked out. Lifting knee to chin, he raises the ankle within reach of his hands, and he tunes in on the pain, on pain’s ministrations, because it, the pain, knows him intimately and medicinally.

An ankle is a very complicated kind of hinge. An ankle is like a handful of stones lashed together. He can feel the pain inside there take a physical shape, a shape roughly the figure of a crushed salamander in there. He rolls to one side, knee tucked under chin – and then he keeps on rocking a little while, using an elbow as a lever, to toss, rocking gently. Then he stops rocking and lies still.

Down at the ground he can hear the distant radio’s news, not the words themselves but the whole attitude, the moral tone of the world. He would be the first to admit, he can be somewhat objective, he’s capable of taking a point-of-view outside himself: he knows that a peculiarity of real “villainy” is that the villain himself doesn’t see it. Even a murderer or the average sociopath, even somebody like that, might feel perfectly all right inside his own skin. He looks up the hill from where he lies. Milton and Isobel are out of sight, past the grass horizon. They will be sitting on the bare dirt outside the kitchen door, amidst their litter of thrift-shop Legos. They have some peace. Right now they’re a million miles from a bankruptcy court or an environmental disaster. They are still the reason for a man’s being patient and not absenting himself permanently via some efficient, discreet, easy-to-clean-up method. The ankle can move, from left to right, from up to down, it’s only a sprain, so he ought to – if lightly – start walking on it. And go uphill for an aspirin; three or four aspirin.

One thing he can do with a hurt ankle is split firewood. A heap of easily split cedar has been spilled out, off the woodcart’s tailgate at the edge of the dooryard. It’s at least an afternoon’s work. A sprained ankle might actually feel worse tomorrow, but it’s bound to heal eventually. Also, another important reason for not annulling himself is that he is one of several who remember Sheila Carmel. He rights himself, and he stands up to test the joint. The tenderness will be tolerable because there’s a kind of general anaesthesia in having other problems too big to solve. Problems a lot bigger than an ankle pain. Walking uphill, favoring his right foot, he reminds himself of an old television character, a wheezing whining old man with a limp – named Pappy or something, from a TV show he can’t place.

His own forearm: strange alien slats of working muscle.

Toward his innocent family, he climbs the orchard hill’s rounded slope – the longitudinal swell of the whole earth – so he’s a like migrant worker arriving from the south, and a lucky one, too, because here in this place, he is recognized: Isobel sees his limp and she pronounces his name, in a falling sound of disappointment – which could even be annoyance. He tells her it’s nothing, it’s just a sprain.

Bob is wearing the Burberry raincoat that serves as his robe. He’s clutching his sheaf of students’ essays on how to turn lead into gold. These essays, every season, are sent up from the schoolhouse so he can correct and grade them, as if he were still a teacher there. They represent one of his few activities, so while he’s got them, he tends to carry them around in hand as much as he can, ostentatiously.

Virgil, having supported himself on the gatepost, can lunge to the big propane-tank – and find a way to sit against its southern slope – to keep the weight off his foot. Something he knows about propane: you have to keep it under tremendous pressure to keep it liquid, to keep it from boiling away. In life, you pick up these odd fascinating bits of useless information. Propane’s boiling point is way down below zero. It’s interesting to think of. If there did exist any liquid-form propane on this planet, maybe you could find a puddle of it in Antarctica, someplace frigid, where it wouldn’t sizzle away.

Old Bob is looking peaceable, so it’s safe to assume his mind is in another time and place. And sure enough, he has come to the doorway for the purpose of telling Isobel something he’s obviously been meaning to say:

“I notice there’s a sweater in the window on the rue Mouffetard. We won’t be here forever. Go get it for yourself.”

Then, feeling glad he mentioned that, he turns back indoors with his handful of students’ papers. As he departs he gives the sheaf a little brandishing shake: He’s gonna give ‘em hell. It’s a charity of the schoolhouse administrators, that, for his sake, they keep the lead-into-gold essay in their curriculum, and keep assigning it to new generations, in this canyon lost-in-time like the valley Rip van Winkle woke up in.

Virgil says, “Rue Mouffetard?”

Isobel shrugs.

The boy, sitting in the dust, has been been crushing together a combination of two Lego cubes as hard as he can, but without result. The holes are wrongly aligned. Virgil gets off the propane tank to get down on his level and he nudges right up against him. “Here, let me help.”

“I’m’n do it,” Milton fends him off.

Well, Virgil can watch. The historical point is, they’re leaning together shoulder-to-shoulder. In history the specific words inside the dialogue-balloons will all be erased. What remains is the chain of physical touches, themselves forgotten, too, but effectual. Someday he’ll even make Isobel laugh again. He’ll clown for her as he once did. Soon, here, the sun will go deep behind the pines. It’s going to get cold in the dooryard. Milton, on his Lego project, is going to be stubborn. As for scorning a father’s help, it’s a good thing. It’s how a boy makes a world. It’s an important part of what fathers are for, to be dismissed. He pushes up to his feet again – the ankle will improve if he keeps putting weight on it – he knows where he left the axe – and the sledge hammer and the wedges – because he’s going to enjoy the rhythm, swinging the axe, while darkness falls, the exercise of useful force.

Around on that side of the house, the first target has been dragged into place already. A thick disk of cedar, stacked upon another. And the axe is right where he left it.

He stands at a certain distance from it in this easy arena, this basically foolproof circle of work, the axe’s shapely haft in the grasp of both hands. The soles of his feet get a stance, and he extends the axe and taps the chopping block once, for range – and then the heavy axeblade swings pendulum-like, beside his knee, back and forth, then makes the round-the-world trip overhead and comes down on the disk. It parts into two cliffs of wood, easily on the first try.

It’s how cedar is. Little need for wedges. Out in the orchard somewhere, the pruning shears and the loppers are lying where he dropped them. Let them lie. A little frost won’t hurt. Tonight will be a starry, cold night. He left his jacket out there too, and the straw hat. All those pears are still only half-pruned. In the east orchard, the apple trees are airborne crowns of brambles.

Last spring he walked into that blossoming grove, and he was frightened. A deep rumbling roar had suddenly arisen. It was some kind of approaching catastrophe, like a freeway coming through. He looked up. It was the honeybees, thousands of them together, the little brown humble kind you seldom see except in blossom time. The noise of their work was exactly as if he were standing under an important multi-lane freeway at rush hour. So, that little scare amounted to a kind of rebuke, just for him. Mistakenness a distinct kind of solace.

Another week’s pruning remains. The long, cut-off whips will be swept up and saved, to be woven as wattle for the chickens’ enclosure. In September, in the golden dryness, he will board the truck at the foot of Lime Kiln Road with his crates of fruit. And take the long ride to Sacramento for the days of open marketplace beneath the overpass-bridge. Last fall, it was a good experience. He only wished he’d brought more. The tamales were so good, he felt selfish: nobody back home was getting any. And the music in the evenings was sometimes emotional – mariachi-sounding or klezmer-sounding – the accordion, the fiddles, the campfire light – and in the smoky mornings, too, the lone violin’s dirge – emotional because he was all alone by himself during those three days, and his heart was open. The paper money piled up in his jeans pockets. Nobody had fives or tens or twenties, everybody seemed to have ones. More and more, as that weekend fair went on, every little event was added to the collection of things Sheila Carmel wasn’t there to see. Or know about. He had set up his fruitstand with the others on the freeway, directly upon the lane-dividers’ big white dashes, because the planned apartment complexes north of the city had been given up, and now the new six-lane road had no use, except as a paved place for the mercado shaded by the overpass. Coals in the morning heated the coffee. Breakfast was tortillas and bitter chocolate, directly from the charcoal brazier on the ground where a woman knelt with tamales. Somebody pointed out, when Cortez entered the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, half a millennium ago, there were women even then calling in the native language, “Tamal! Tamal!” kneeling at charcoal braziers in the great city’s gates.

The axe-blade will keep coming down like clockwork. In the dusk the exposed woodgrain glows with its stored calories. He’ll say hello again to all that woodgrain next winter – on stiff kneecaps before his own woodstove. This work isn’t necessarily good for his ankle. But it makes him keep flexing it. Which must be good. He gets to the last of the small rounds and decides he’ll leave the rest for tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day: one of the thoughts granted to a man. The axe he brings inside the mudroom. Leans it on the filing cabinet.

The smell of dinner is in the kitchen. Lamplight indoors is a cobweb in the eye. His hands he washes with a squirt of dishsoap. By an accident of their poverty, they keep getting into the better and better wines as they deplete the cellar. Of the good stuff, a glass or two is enough. Soon the cellar will be empty. They’ll be liberated to buying the five-dollar jugs at the store. As if it made any difference, to his palate.

Better than any wine is Isobel’s currant sauce for the curry, served out around the table in this atmosphere of – what – obstinacy? – chivalry? The dark soup stands before him, to be consumed without comment mutely, because Milton and Bob are the two babblers who always dominate. It’s useful how he and Isobel don’t talk much. Let the old man and the bossy child fill the air. Not saying anything is a kind of alliance between them, somehow a cause for hope, here at the table’s edge.

Milton pushes away his bowl. He seems to consider himself finished with his soup, and he announces, “Ooh moof tar.”

The tone is like something he’s ordering for dessert.

The old man looks at him, then returns to his soup, shaking his head.

“Ooh moof tar,” Milton tells him.

“Can’t,” says Bob. “Too far.” The old man really does think he knows what the boy is saying.

“Go the museum,” adds the boy, with perfect clarity. Museum is his word for the bathroom. It’s a connection his childish mind made somehow; and nobody wants to disillusion him of his happy misunderstanding, just because it’s funny, and, also, it won’t last forever. Generally, however, it’s after he has produced a turd in his diaper that he asks to go to the museum.

“Too far,” says Bob again, unmoved, spooning up broth.

So Virgil will do it. The boy leads the way outside, to the so-called museum, to be lifted by a father onto the throne, pants pulled down, in the coppery dimness of the lightbulb. And when his duty’s done, the boy can reach up and wash his own hands, all by himself, while his father trowels sawdust into the coffer and lowers the lid.

Returning from the cold, the interior in candlelight looks like an old painting. The cabbage, the broth. The carrots, the potatoes.

His wife, her hands are hard and red. Isobel’s aging is another thing unseen by Sheila – but imaginable by Sheila, foreseeable by Sheila during her lifetime, as are all things foreseeable. All things knowable. Tonight the candlelight has dwindled to a new slope discovering a tenderness in Isobel’s neck, a treacherous new comfort in flesh. And this, the soup, is the only ceremony. Again tonight, they will lie down side by side in the dark together, making their separate prints on the bedsheets, body-temperature. Already the soupbowls’ pale floors are becoming visible through the broth, clicking with spoons. Obstinacy, faith, chivalry.

Ignorance, bliss. Every common day burns down steadily and evenly, but within a consuming white-hot flare. Which welds a blind spot. And the blind spot is the only place you can live. One is grateful, then, for the failing of the light, the dimness at day’s end, how the eye is doused.

Tonight there will be sherbet, too, and all the fanfare surrounding sherbet. Because it was made by the labor of hand-cranking. When he is faced with his own dollop of sherbet, Virgil will have no special desire for it. But he will eat his portion, for the sake of the child’s sense of order. And then they will all four tip away from the table, each for his own reasons and destinations. The boy for his little narrow bed. Virgil to do the dishes. At the onetime lab workbench, Isobel likes to contemplate her painting by the light of her kerosene lamp, a Masonite board on the easel. She won’t be able to work on it till daylight. It’s a portrait of a pair of crumpled lost dollars, creased and soft, in a general sunset but bedded in her usual shadows, their icy lavenders.

In the case of Virgil, his place will be the sink.

First, in the mud room, there’s the barley fodder to be watered, on long racks. And he has some filing and sorting to do there, among his archives of flattened cardboard boxes.

After which, he finds himself standing at the sink as usual moving his hands deep through the soap brine asleep-on-his-feet in his most efficient trance. On the cast-iron pan, a droplet of soap makes a sheen of grease leap away. Finally, by kerosene light, each wet glass will be laid in the dishrack, having been rubbed to a squeak. The ankle is engorged and throbbing. Probably a good sign. It would mean the bone isn’t broken, it’s just a sprain. Still, he can’t put weight on it. Tomorrow is another day. And nothing is the end of the world: that was his mother’s refrain for comfort. The kitchen drain is plugged up. The dishwater is cold consommé and his hand goes down to find the trap in the drain, where a lacy edge of fried egg and sunken breadcrusts, all in a jelly that tries to elude his pinch, can be lifted to the sloppy bucket by the sink. With a sucking sound the sink will empty through the pipe to the meadow outside in the dark, where frost will be setting in. Starlight tonight. All this dishwater will freeze in the tall grass under the clear sky. His pruning shears and his hat are lying in starlight.

The frying pan is the last thing. He turns the sponge over to use its rough side. He needs to stop to close his eyes, he’s so tired. It’s a pleasure to be so tired. But what he sees. What’s inside the skull, inside his eyelids, is a beautiful hallucination. What he sees is the unpruned bare branches, all around, close in his face, about his ears, all the buds all around him, against blue sky.


[The End]





[1] Comp. Form. Angell. V. xxi. [Ut instituandam tempora ex aetatibus.]

[2] “Guardian Angels” are more correctly called Tutelaries, for the reason that most Guardians will be not Angels but Cadets, who are mortal in origin. A staff of Tutelaries requires one True Angel, who presides as Guardian Ordinary, or more commonly Angel Ordinary.

[3] Paradise is not incorporeal or ethereal, as sometimes wrongly construed in hagiography. Beatitude will be an ineffable higher realm, and will be immaterial, but here at these and all other levels of Paradise, Angels move and apprehend with sensation and perception, as also do Cadets. As decreed by Theologians, an Afterlife must be materially sensible in order that all redeemed souls in glory may be indulged carnally in gluttony, lust, sloth, et cetera, which constitute the guarantees of Paradise.

[4] That no effective Angel is permitted ever to have a doubt is a lex divina. (cf. note #15)

[5] Annals in the Afterlife are stored in the traditional medium of celluloid film, rolled up on beige metal reels, which reels are forwarded daily to permanent Libraries in an exalted, inaccessible department called Ante Aetates.

[6] Confer supra, note #1.

[7] Temporality. Paradise exists in Time, unlike the higher, eternal realms of Heaven. In Paradise, as in Earth, events seem to happen one-at-a-time in sequence separately.

[8] For digestion in Angels, and in Paradise generally, see below, note #27.

[9] “Cadets” in Paradise are mortal souls (i.e., begotten in Earth, in sin) who are in progress toward Beatitude but continue to serve last obligations in Purgatory.

(That mortals “become Angels” after death is a misconception. Mortal souls and Angels are of two different and immiscible Orders of creation. Mortal souls originate in sin but may matriculate to Beatitude. Angels, as created, can never.)

[10] The tier known as Paradise is the last and topmost level of Purgatory.

[11] Wings, in fact, exist almost only in earthly iconography. No Angels or elect souls have literal wings, except in the case of Seraphim and Cherubim, and conventional rubber-stamp “cherubs.” Instead, as a figure of speech, “wings” refers to mortal souls’ attainment of Beatitude.

[12] Regarding time: The mystic reality of Time is that it has a moral fabric, rather than any “chronological” order. Contrary to the evidence of human senses, only the past exists. The present and future are unreal, and they are nonexistent, in the sense that the future and the present are never experienced by humans. (de Leg. ab Orig.) The so-called future has “existence” only in the fixed form of hope and dread. And an apparent “present moment” transpires only speciously. The so-called “specious present” is visible and spectacular, but the instant is perpetually claimed by, and contained within, the past. Most importantly, the present and the future are nonexistent because, never being experienced, they have no consequence. Thus the past is the only existential reality. (Also, the past is the changeable, modfiable reality. And it is the useful, consequential reality.)]

[13] Envy in Heaven. “Invidia et Fascina” is a category among the delectations guaranteed to elect souls in Paradise. [Index Pecc. Paradisi]

[14] Unfolding actions in Earth are caused by human Free Will. Angels have limited powers only of Advocacy and Petition.

[15] Doubts are never conceivable in a True Angel. If any Accomplished Angel experience a doubt or a qualm, or even a shadow of a misgiving, that Angel as remedy may only hope for humility, immediately and abjectly.

[16] Obduracy of the Damned: The Damned must and will remain unrepentant. They must regret their sins deeply, but never repent of them. In this way, sinners’ miseries in Hell never arouse compassion in Angels or elect souls. Angelic and beatified beings regard with satisfaction the torments of the Fallen. [Summa III, q. xciv.] Reciprocally, the Fallen must persist in viewing Heaven, and the whole project of “Heaven,” and “Salvation,” as hypocritical and vindictive and unfair; and count themselves wise never to have succumbed in it. This is the Doctrine of the Obduracy of the Damned.

[17] Note: A Heavenly Being may prevaricate. “Retentio veritas pertinens et trunca fidelitas in rebus potestastes totius externi Beatitudinis sunt.” [Summa Coel., IV, iii.] Dishonesty and discretion are a capacity of “all beings exernal to Beatitude,” a class that includes Angels in Camera and Peregrini.

[18] Miracles are not a prerogative of Guardians, nor of any Angel of any degree. [De leg. coel., Lib III: “De miraculis: nullus Angellus nusquam miracula coepere potest.”]

[19] Curatorship of the Past accounts for almost all of the Afterlife’s total establishment at all levels. It is Angels’ most incessant activity, and their most important. Tending the past is the basis and purpose of Heaven.

The past has two practical attributes that distinguish it from any putative “present” or “future”: 1) the past does exist; and 2) the past is in constant alteration under revision.

From an Earthly perspective, the past seems fixed, immutable, and unique. Only the anticipated future seems fluid and modifiable. In actuality, the reverse is true; existentially, the past is infinitely changeable. The past is also dynamic in its influence. The special vocation of Angels is to work through the night, every night, in Tutelary darkrooms on editing tables with traditional razor-and-block splicers, narrating among billions of aeons of possible historical universes, finally to submit finished alternate reels upward for storage in higher Libraries.

[20] Sin is the building-block of all personality. In the composition of human character, there is no constituent other than these seven: pride, gluttony, greed, lust, envy, anger, and sloth. In the absence of these, personality would have no material and no existence. In the absence of sin beatific merger with God would be instant and involuntary.

[21] A stage in moral development.

[22] The so-called “Apocatastatic Heresy” consisted in the belief that God, being all-merciful, would end History in universal forgiveness. That is, in a general and unconditional amnesty, He would finally abolish Hell, and He would call to Heaven even the worst, including every creature, leaving out none. The rationale was that a deity who is both (A) all-Good and (B) all-Powerful could not do otherwise. As theology (and as advanced by the early Fathers and Schoolmen), the idea would seem reasonable, and also felicitous. But Judgment and Distinction are conditions of Moral and Metaphysical Creation. Therefore a contrary Doctrine was promulged, of the so-called “Eternal Unrepentance [or Obduracy] of the Damned” as a condition of their unforgiveness. That is, the damned must always hold in suspicion the project of Heaven, judging it to be “both unjust and prejudiced and also a fiction.” [lib. Sinist.]

[23] Bilocation and Angels’ motion generally. Angels in their motions do pass through intervening space, but with a near-superluminal celerity (Comp. Form. Angell. VII. iii.). From time to time, practical occasions arise when, by asymptotic oscillation, an Accomplished Angel can be present at two locations. (Summa I, q. lii, aa. 2&3)

[24] [“De Noctis Numquam Funditus Debellando Alioqui de Lucis Praebita Non Sit.” Lib. Orig. Principiae, II.]

[25] Vengeance against the Creator. Metaphysical events in the Afterlife transpire literally, never merely figuratively. To merely say aloud, for example, that a metaphorical “candle be lit” is insufficient. Someone somewhere must light a manifest candle, even superstitiously, in order that the sign may have efficacy. To speak of a metaphorical “Jerusalem” does not alone suffice; there must be a literal Jerusalem somewhere, albeit unvisited or “Rumored” in Earth. In this way, the empty promise “Next Year In Jerusalem!” will have spiritual efficacy for the Incontinent. In the same manner, particularly as the annihilation of the Author will be an epochal enormity, no merely ceremonial or symbolic enactment of revenge against Him will satisfy.

[26] For “bilocation,” see above, note #23.

[27] Digestion in Manifest Angels. All supernal beings in Paradise, being incarnate, have literal digestive tracts. In Compendium Sanct. Coel., the Catalogue “Delights of the Elect in Paradise” includes the following Heavenly gratifications under the category Alimentary:

Satiation and Appetitiveness


Mastication and Degustation

Soft-palate Peristalsis

Gastration, Chymation, Nutritive Digestion, Nutritive Elation

Duodenal and Cloacal Peristalsis

Micturation, Defecation, Eructation, Cloacal Pneumævacuation

These are promises in Paradise, of solace both primordial and infantile, since a large number of the Elect will be infants who died in Grace, as well as simple souls and the uttermost Poor in Spirit; for whom feeding alone was the sole Earthly oblectation.

[28] Realtor. Lowest rank in the Hierarchy of Angels.

[The Angelic Choirs, in order from highest to lowest: I Cherubim; II Seraphim; III Thrones; IV Dominions; V Authorities; VI Powers; VII Principalities; VIII Archangels; IX Angels; X Realtors.]

[29] Eternity not a “temporal” condition, eternity is a moral condition. Eternity is unrelated to “time.” The misconceptions in Earth are that “time” and eternity are identical categories differing only in quantity; that eternity consists in a mere prolongation of “time’”; and also that eternity is inconceivable in ordinary human experience. On the contrary, actual eternity is everpresent and contemporaneous and constantly in human experience. Most importantly, eternity’s essential structure is moral and archival, and has nothing to do with the Earthly sensation of time’s passage.

[30] “Mutationibus Interdictae Perpetuo” of Annalae Historiarum non Mutandae forbidding alteration of records.

[31] Re: digestion and excrementa in Paradise. As laid down by Theologians, the Afterlife must necessarily be made of physical substance and not be evanescent or insubstantial. (Cf. note #3). That digestion must transpire materially is a corollary. The contents of excrementacles, from every Office, are daily collected and curated; for nothing in the Afterlife is ever disposed of, but only archived, along with everything else, toward a general assay of all things at the End of Time.

[32] Cf. note #: The noun “ordinary” designates merely one who has been “ordained.”

[33] The theological implications, already difficult in the matter of theophagy, would prove the more intractable in the Regurgitation. Until the Regurgitation, a school of so-called Reductionists would have prevailed permanently in the doctrine of the Lord God’s having been materially “reduced,” intestinally, in a progress toward annihilation and subsequent oblivion. But the reverse progress (literally from gastric contents to the restoration of Divine prerogative) would prove harder to theologize. On this Scholastic yet fundamental question, the several schools of opinion would divide as follows: Consubstantialism holds that God and stomach-contents exist in the same substance, coincident; Transubstantialism holds that God is able to be changed to stomach-contents substantially and entirely, and thence conversely to vomit, or to excrement, without impairment of His essential Divine nature; a third doctrine, taking the name Sublimation, asserts that God can never be stomach-contents alone, because He is always immanent in all things, and that, in stomacho, His essence persists in intestinal contents only insofar as He permeates all things at all times; yet another doctrine, Causative, maintains that Divinity in stomacho subsists in two coexisting substances: He is “reduced” or “instantiated” in the singular form of stomach-contents (i.e., formally and materially) while remaining “irreducible and omnipresent” in His teleological and efficient modalities. Among these four competing interpretations of the Regurgitation Cycle, a fifth has arisen, known as “Straw Man,” which, while unsanctioned, has proved vigorously popular. This heterodox theory holds that the Victim of the redemptive sacrifice was not God at all but something else, variously specified, i.e., some other substance not Divine; so in consequence, the principle of “Divinity” was never impaired. This view fails to provide any account of Divine culpability or contrition, nor of any moral Satisfaction; however, it is most consistent with axioms of God’s Unity and Eternity and Immutability; also it preserves mortals’ fortunate condition in sin and incontinence. Thus its persistence. Still the fundamental question dividing Theologians is whether a strictly symbolic (eucharistic) rite of “punishment” suffices to accomplish retribution against God, or whether in all justice, God must, somewhere, sometime, be literally, in person, physically degraded and destroyed.