A figure in a hooded lapis running suit rounded the northernmost curve of Lake Pleasant. Veered up the leaf-strewn incline to Pleasant Lake Road and cut across the fresh black of the asphalt. A pantheon of street lights looking more curious than protective craned over the runner as it ran under the unblinking eye of one after another in a long row before taking a sharp right up Plymouth Circle Drive.
She jogged the road’s middle as it curved into the heights of Pleasant Hill, canopied by elms as old as the city, a grand continuum of elms whose thoughts were obvious, though immemorially misinterpreted by tone-deaf humans as the meaningless rustle of leaves. She remained on the dotted median of the road, keeping the late model imports a good distance to her right. She exhaled in punchy syncopation with the soft slap of her excellent shoes on the pavement and when the moment was perfect she enjoyed the sensation that the world was a weighty treadmill rolling with incremental majesty beneath her feet. To top this pleasure she ran for a mile with her eyes closed, chin up and arms out-stretched like a child becoming an airplane.
Unlike the corona of dead brilliance around the lake, the Pleasant Hill sidewalks were lit with genteel inefficiency by electric faux gas lamps. These faux gas lamps were themselves so old they had become authentic antiques. The neighborhood was lovely yet hypothetically dangerous, too, so dark and moneyed and full of hiding places, though statistics continued to indicate that violent criminals remained remarkably reluctant to commute. Such criminal activity as could be found on ‘The Hill’ was merely quaint: leaf-burning; low level tax evasion; residents of a certain age keeping rubber-banded stashes of ‘ganja’ in mysteriously marked coffee cans on high shelves in their two-car garages.
The higher along the pretty spiral of Plymouth Circle Drive the runner ran, the more impressive, and stand-offish, the houses became. Parked cars thinned out and then disappeared from the curb entirely except for the occasional Beetle or half-restored vintage muscle car indicative of home-for-the-holidays offspring, and picket fences replaced hurricane fences and hedges replaced picket fences and the hedges grew lusher as she put on some speed. The hedges intensified into crennelated battlements, mutated into topiary fantasias and resolved into the simple-yet-vast, this last example being a description of the stately, ten foot tall, six foot deep hedge around the Van Metzger Estate. A moat wouldn’t have looked out of place around the Van Metzger estate.
She slowed as she approached the grand green citadel of Gus Van Metzger’s corner. She loved this part of the run. As the neighborhood’s demographic shifted she was up here with decreasing frequency but later in the decade, in fact, she planned on seeing old Van Metzer himself. The air was creation-fresh and hung like a gallery with decorative lanterns of fireflies that winked out, one by one, as she reached to touch them. The sheer diversity, she marveled. The inaudibly low octave of far-ranging insect systems in the soil. And then the next order of creatures for whom these ‘tiny’ insects were armor-plated dinosaurs. And the bacterial super-communities of minds even smaller than that, whose thoughts were individual atoms. And so on. The atoms themselves were neither living nor dead nor entirely without consciousness.
If you looked from the bluff where the street ended, one block on from the Van Metgers’s, in the little roundabout called Plymouth Circle with its central boulder featuring a commemorative plaque of two loin-clothed indians and a white man in a preposterous hat, the view presented was a toy metropolis’s downtown as it fit in the soft box of the valley…the diamond bracelets of southbound traffic and northbound necklaces of rubies and the pearls of municipal lighting. She stood for a moment on the ledge of the bluff, checking her pulse.
On her way back down the spiral road, she took the detour up the alley behind the Van Metzger property, pulling her hood off in order to look less like the kind of character some might fear would spring from the bushes. Heaven forbid she should scare some dogwalking old lady to death. Her Afro expanded in the dark wet air and she felt, with a wry smirk, like intelligent topiary.
Upstairs at 5727 Humboldt.
The house had settled into itself for the night with an asthmatic wheeze from the central heating. To the left and right and across the street and behind the alley were nouveau mansions in the understated Scandinavian style, but 5727 was a bungalow in comparison, the oldest structure in the area. 5727 faced its mainstreet sideways and the soft-edged roofing over the attic dormers sagged in a way that made the old house look fraught with worries. The j-shaped walk from the gate in the hedge, curving across the yard to the front door, was broken-backed where roots cracked the old concrete. The roots were also responsible for muddy bald spots all over the yard and the owner of the property, Mrs. Gustafson-Davis, had been meaning to remove the offending tree since forever. Inside the house, the master bedroom had that flickering, morbid glow her husband Marcel always associated with blue balls. Blue balls and palpitations.
Merriam was wearing her gargantuan wireless headphones and watching The Mitch vs Spectre Hour, immune to her husband’s extremity in all three senses of the word. His nightly stations of the cross. Marcel Agonistes, is how he put it. Merriam, who prided herself on the fact that she and Marcel hadn’t had a voice-raising argument in twelve years, feigned to fail to notice that it had been exactly that long since the marriage had heard a voice raised in laughter or ecstasy, either. And then she had discovered wireless headphone technology and could do almost anything on either the first or second floor of the house without severing a connection to the ongoing narrative of the outside world, or having to listen to any distracting, vaguely irritating, or embarrassing sound that Marcel might make after Merriam got home from work at the travel agent.
In those headphones she appeared to him, laying there on her side in her pyjamas with her back turned, to be sporting Mickey Mouse ears that had sagged and slipped halfway down her head in late middle age. Still, he longed to have his knowledge of her sketchy cunt hairs refreshed; he wondered if they had all gone grey. Her husband lay there fretting while Merriam’s breathing synchronized itself with erotic empathy to the cadences of television personality Nate Mitchell’s voice.
Mitchell was handsome and blonde in the manner of an ambrosia-fed Liberal and his partner/opponent Spectre looked wonderfully-well described by his name: white-haired and gauntly Conservative. His head wobbled, a la Hepburn, when he rose too high in the saddle while on the charge viz certain topics: abortion, school prayer, The War. The show was ostensibly a balanced presentation of Left and Right worldviews in the form of an ongoing debate, with the audience voting the ‘winner’ at the end of every program. Merriam had been a campaign volunteer in every Presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s. Marcel had yet to register to vote.
“I’ll register to vote,” he said, softly, externalizing the conversation in his head, “when they put something relevant on the goddamn ballot.” He’d vote against professional sports, Fourth of July fireworks, recreational water vehicles and Nate Mitchell in a New York minute.
Nate Mitchell, who never got flustered on camera.
His brow never creased nor wept with perspiration and his voice maintained the gratifying temperature of pot-warmed honey on an oven-fresh banana nut bran muffin. Just imagine those two Liberal Aryans start talking politics together, thought Marcel, who considered politics to be a trivial affront to the majestically unambitious intangibility of the human spirit. He imagined the couple that he imagined Merriam was (foolishly) imagining the two could make. Merriam sometimes claimed that Marcel quitting his job at the Art School had established some kind of a pattern, ironically. He’d quit that job because of her. His student.
Quit that job back in the ’50s when Marcel and Merriam had been, literally, illegal. Being illegal had given them a thrill and a purpose, first at the Art School and then in the electrifyingly hostile territory of daily life, when shopping together could turn the morning into an ordeal they’d cap with a defiant sex act in the fragile safety of the efficiency they’d rented, from a sympathetic vet, a mulatto, a guy named Vincent Cob, before moving to Minnesota.
Marcel remembered that time he’d sold five big canvasses to the actor Robert Culp: Two thousand, five hundred and seventy five dollars. How he’d thought he was finally on his way and how he still had a Polaroid of the check somewhere. He remembered his father teaching him to pronounce “mischievous” properly, and, almost immediately after, mispronouncing “erudite,” then scooping the silver muscle of a spirited fish from the blue bosom of the lake. Sitting in a skiff on Lake Calumet. He remembered Merriam playfully correcting his mispronunciation of “erudite” on their fifth date (the morning they’d first slept together). He remembered meeting Trini Lopez at a Civil Rights Benefit. The skiff called Cherokee.
He could hear the Van Metzger’s neurotic border collie Apollinaire barking in the dead of night at the crickets and/or squirrels again. The VMs were at the other end of a very long alley but it was such a quiet neighborhood and the acoustics of the alley were so peculiar that on summer nights with the bedroom windows open you could hear Apollinaire whimpering and farting in his sleep. Could Apollinaire, conversely, hear Marcel whimpering and farting in his sleep? Marcel frowned: the batty dog was barking louder and harder than usual. Possible sign of a coon in the garbage cans. They could be scary if backed into a corner.
“That damn dog is going to have another heart attack,” said Marcel, suddenly, in a loud clear voice, before remembering, immediately, for the Nth time, that Merriam couldn’t hear him. Merriam used to point at the headphones to indicate that she couldn’t hear but she no longer bothered. The isolating boundaries of their marriage had hardened into a tacit, durable and convenient structure.
“Merriam,’ said Marcel, to himself. He moaned and shifted his position. The trick he’d learned, long ago, was to keep a knee up so Merriam couldn’t see the blanket fluctuating like an irregular heartbeat on his his jerk-hand.
“Got a confession to make. Merriam, you remember the last big piece I did? Before I quit Art, I mean? Years ago. Twenty years ago. My masterpiece. Driving around town, collecting old futon mattresses like it was my job. Rolling these nasty things up and stacking them in the back of the station wagon, I was kinda affected. Maybe they were a bio-hazard. Maybe I got the disease. This loneliness thing.”
“I turned down a few futons for being too gross, even after driving all the way to the other side of town, ringing the bell, jogging up flights of stairs and being met at the door by a person too bleak looking or filthy. I wasn’t about to hug that nasty history to myself and drag it to the car and nail it to the gallery wall. Most of the mattresses I bought were from couples, or single women. Didn’t want to touch a mattress a man had been crying on, I guess.”
“Well here’s my confession. I never told you that the one I paid the most for I bought from a beautiful law student named Amina. Wish to god I could remember Amina’s last name, it was so beautiful. Her name was mellifluous. She had described the color, lapis, over the phone. Queen-sized. Consider this my confession, Merriam. Close up, you could see the futon was covered with her long, long, kinky silky hairs. So gorgeous it hurt. The faded lapis and the long exquisite hairs like devotional script. Been dreaming about that girl ever since. Twenty year old Muslim law student with an Afro. Amina. Love of my life. Sorry. You think it was you?”
“It amazed me the number of people who weren’t ashamed to sell me their futons with big old urine or period stains on them… ”
Marcel arched his back and wrenched to the right and threw up on the side of his pillow, away from Merriam’s side of the bed. It came out so easy. He let it go.
Nate Mitchell’s startling blue eyes, set in a bronzed mask that briefly changed the color scheme of the entire bedroom, seemed to follow Merriam as she rolled out of bed and slipped, while lowering her pyjama bottoms, into the master bathroom, door open, headphones still on, in a cruel parody of a marital post-lovemaking pee.
Amina jogged back down towards the lake, slipping the hood up over her Afro, and Marcel, confused, ran after her.