A figure in a hooded lapis running suit rounded the northernmost curve of Lake Pleasant. It veered up the leaf-strewn incline to Pleasant Lake Road and cut a diagonal across the asphalt. A pantheon of street lights looking more distantly 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 itself, 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 treadmill rolling with slow 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.
In contrast to the corona of dead brilliance around the lake, the Pleasant Hill sidewalks were lit with genteel inefficiency by electric faux gas lamps themselves so old they had become authentic antiques. The neighborhood was lovely yet theoretically 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 hedge.
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 paying old Van Metzer himself a visit. 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 armour-plated dinosaurs. And the bacterial super-communities of minds even smaller than that, whose thoughts were individual atoms. And so on.
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 noveau 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 luminence 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. 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.
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’ by call-in touchtone menu 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, 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 majestic intangibility of the human spirit. He hadn’t had a paying job, other than the ongoing project of painting the garage, in twenty years. He hadn’t even graduated from Art College.
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 animals if backed into a corner.
“That damn dog is going to have another heart attack,” said Marcel, before remembering, immediately, for the Nth time, that Merriam couldn’t hear him. She used to point at the headphones to indicate that she couldn’t hear him, but she no longer bothered with that. The isolating boundaries of their marriage had hardened into tacit structures.
“Merriam,’ said Marcel. “What’s sadder than an old man and an old woman in a bed they never use together? A hard cock they never use? A cunt they never use? I know you have possibilities, still, Merriam. You don’t have to tell me. Bag boys at the grocery store still look at you, sometimes, oh yes, for a fleeting moment, those moments I guess you live for, without even thinking you’re old. Maybe they don’t care that all that gray hair is dyed gold and the big droopy never-used tits are strapped up and plumped together in a wonderbra and a third of those big white teeth go in a glass overnight. Maybe they don’t even know it. Maybe they’re blessed with the ignorance of youth. I mean, of course they are. They see the surface. They don’t know what surfaces hide, dear. You know what the surfaces hide?”
Marcel moaned and shifted his position.
“I have a confession to make. Merriam, do you remember the last big piece I did? Before I quit Art, I mean? Years ago. Twenty years ago. I was driving around town, collecting old futon mattresses. Rolling these dusty old things up and stacking them in the back seat of the station wagon, I was kinda affected by hugging all of those…you know…sponges of intimate experience. Think about it: all those soaked-up fuckings and droolings and fartings and fevers and dreams. I hugged them to myself and frog-marched them out of strange buildings but maybe they were a bio-hazard. Maybe I got the disease then. This loneliness thing.”
“I turned down a few 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…that old prejudice. Didn’t want to touch a mattress a man had been crying on, I guess. I never told you that the one I paid the most for I bought from a beautiful law student named Amina. She had described the color, lapis, over the phone. It was queen-sized and stainless. Consider this my confession, Merriam. The closest I ever got to infídelity. Close up, you could see the futon was covered with her super-long kinky hairs. It was beautiful. The faded lapis and the delicate hairs. Been dreaming about that girl ever since. Twenty year old Muslim law student with a spectacular afro.”
“I’d end up with three or four mattresses rolled up in the back of the station wagon in a day, the classified section of the newspaper on the seat beside me, and this complicated odor…the body-nostalgias of total strangers…. It amazed me the number of people who weren’t ashamed to sell me futons with big urine or period stains on them. But that was the theme of the exhibition.”
“And then I was thinking of the irony of going around buying these old futons, rejecting the really gross ones, the ones from the really repulsive owners, when we had, you know, the previous year, sold someone a bed set, including a mattress, on which…okay…on which you had the miscarriage. Sold it without disclosing this information. Well, I had considered keeping it for whatever historical reason. But you said: no. Like you were disciplining a puppy. No no no, Marcel! No Marcel! No Marcel! No…Amina…”
Marcel gasped a telescoping gasp…it sounded as though he was having a coughing fit backwards. He went rigid on his pillow.
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.
The jogger jogged back down towards the lake, slipping the hood up over her afro, and Marcel, slightly confused, jogged behind her.