Kroll runs down the road with his wife draped over his arms like a sheet. He thinks of a scene from his favorite movie, Avalon, where a boy runs home after accidentally setting fire to his father's appliance store, and the suburbs blur behind him, smudges of green lawns. He'd taken photography in high school, and once their assignment was to make a photograph like that, to keep one thing in focus and everything else soft by following the motion of the one thing with the camera. A pan, it was called. His didn't work; the whole thing was a gray smear.
He thinks of that last, bad episode of M*A*S*H, where Hawkeye witnesses a woman smothering a clucking chicken to keep the North Koreans from hearing them, and later, in therapy, he confesses that the clucking chicken was a child. She smothered her baby, Hawkeye keeps repeating. She smothered her baby. He thinks of television, not of his wife, sagging in his arms. She has called him a narcissist on many occasions, incapable of empathy, she said in her strongly accented staccato, looking it up in the dictionary. And she was right. She is right. He tries to keep thoughts of her in present tense, but already this is a movie, this is a television mini-series or a daytime soap opera. This is not real.
He runs until the Southern State Parkway erupts before him—a strange thing about suburbs, how the highway is always hidden, always lurking around the corner, the whole landscape like peaceful wrapping paper around a volcano, always a temptation, a calling to leave, a reminder that where you are is not a destination. He is a former fat boy, out of shape and out of breath, and his skinny little wife now weighs as much as the moon—the threat of hernia descends — and he wants so to lay her down on this patch of brown grass, surrounded by exhaust, some reverse-bucolic setting in which to restore life to her with one kiss.
She is dead. The body, his wife, a body now, just a body.
They are two blocks from home, and her face is blue, and vomit coats her cheeks and the collar of her white shirt. It looks like spin art, like the T-shirts they made at Unique in the 80s. She is dead. He tries to keep the thoughts away, he tries to swat them but they just keep buzzing back: We would have split up, anyway. He doesn't have any tears. He's forgotten how to make tears.
He thinks of the words psychotic break and wonders if that's maybe what's happening to him, maybe it's genetic, he'd been told his birth mother had had one and that's why, that's how she came to put him up for adoption, it was a new term, a term they didn't have in 1966. It is the only information he has about his mother, and he has never, until now, wanted to know more. He hoists his wife over his shoulder, the way he would carry dry cleaning, or a towel in the steam room (what steam room has he ever visited, really?), and he walks back to the house. In what reality does someone walk to the hospital on Long Island? The cars zoom by and no one walks and no one asks why, what happened, who is that creature you wear like a stole? He lays her back on the kitchen floor, and covers her with his blue Dickies jacket, trying to keep her body warm. The jacket is marred by a splotch of dried vomit. He dials the magic triad of numbers, and there are no ambulances, because the ambulances are racing down the Southern State, due west, to rescue everyone else. Three hours, sitting there with the body on the awful linoleum (for months now he said he would replace, how she yelled at him for the unchecked list of repairs), and the empty Stoli bottle that, when he'd found her, looked like an erection poking from her thighs: a B-movie, a thriller, this little pile of evidence. He looks at the woman on the floor and he doesn't even know her.
The funeral, the relatives, the house full of food and then the fridge full of rotting casseroles, and Kroll alone in the house. There is the paperwork, and the waiting for the death certificate to arrive, waiting for them to pass the blame—officially, in ink—to him, for them to call it suicide, death-by-bad-husband. One piece of paper can change everything. Insurance. Car payments. Electric bills. He will have to sell this place, this inherited little house she worked so hard to make homey—growing morning glories up the windowsills, the stenciled begonias, the glitter-dusted pillows. Elena had aimed to move up the Long Island food chain, to Garden City, maybe, or cross county lines into the big bad city of New York. It didn't matter to Kroll. Every place was the same. The house turns dark and echoey, mausoleum-moody. Spider webs grow in the untended corners. Layers of dust stick to the surfaces.
There are thank you notes still left over from wedding presents, and now thank you cards, for what? For the sympathy cards sent him. Is he supposed to send something back, cards for cards, an even exchange?
Nine months to the day after it happened, he returns from work and thinks, I want my mommy. He is thirty-five years old. He had been married four months. A widower for more than twice as long. Every day he has the runs, every morning now the DT's until he escapes to the bar with Danny and cures them with drink. The one promise he'd meant to keep, more than the promise of I Do: He had vowed, years ago, never to drink alone; he'd made the promise to himself after his near-drowning in a fifth of Skol vodka, the night his first love, Mrs. Blanchard, tossed him off. Imbued with the power of ninety proof, he had made himself a Hulk, extracted Mrs. Blanchard's mailbox from the ground and threw it through the living room window: the one and only time he had been beaten up. It was nothing like the movies. It was ungraceful, and it hurt like a motherfucker. There was a broken tooth and a dislocated shoulder, his arm wilting off his body.
Every evening now his headache bubbles up, his biological version of Honey, I'm home: he has settled into a routine of infirmness and what he wants is to crawl out of it. Wasn't there a book he used to read as a child, someone crawling out of a vat of dough in the middle of the night? He wants to be that child, and mothered.He swats away the thoughts of suicide. Pointless to consider; too much work, too much effort. He lets his stomach bulge and slope down over his groin. At the shop, Danny says, “Letting yourself go there, bud?” and tries to pat him on the back. Kroll feels he should apologize to him, his best man, as if he reneged on some kind of contract, as if he should repay him now for the bachelor party, for the lap dance Danny bought him at Gold Fingers: a stripper named Aubergine writhing on his thighs as he tried not to spill his vodka tonic.
He opens his mouth, and closes it again. No use in trying to talk over the noise: hissing of the blowtorch, violent crack of windshield glass: everything the Apex Technical School had promised him fifteen years ago, now fulfilled.At home, he lets the crumbs pile up on the bed, inviting the cockroaches, It's time to party, come on and fiesta, says the TV during the Lionel Richie revival week. The remote too heavy to lift, the buttons too hard to press.His sisters, always useless, his adoptive father, who, until her death, was just his father, frightened by the weight of him, the meat, the darkness of his beard and his eyes and his girth and how different he looks from all of them, all of their waspy white-trashy skinny little bodies, their dyed-red dos. He looks like a foreigner, like his wife, who was a foreigner, who had been dark-skinned and dark-haired and dark-eyed and yet everything light about her, oddly: she was fierce, but she was sunny. Was. He looks more like her than he does his family, this thing they call family. He holds it away from him like a mildewed rag, nothing to do with it. He wants nothing of them.In high school, his sister spilled the beans, the proverbial beans after he spilled the literal ones, the lima beans, all over her junior prom dress. He was in 10th grade, he feared and resented the red-lings, as he liked to call his sisters with their bad dye jobs, and, yes, he spilled the lima beans, and somehow this prompted Tammy, his oldest sister, to announce to the table how Kroll could not be related to them, he was such a klutz.
An inane comment, yes, but the way everyone stopped, and the cat clock ticking in the background became loud as death metal, and Kroll looked around at the four other members of his family who would not make eye contact with him and said in his best Barbarino imitation, “Wha? Wha?” and nobody laughed.
This is what he tells the boys from the shop, because it is easier. He tells them the date of her death, and this is a conversation killer, which is what he wants. If there's anything he wants to kill, it's small talk. Manny and Winston and Angel walk to the Circle K at lunch—choice of microwaveable burrito or soggy pizza slice—and watch the cashier with the shaved head and the hugely fat ass, watch that fat ass wiggle as she flicks the switch back and forth to let the coffee fall from the grinder into the filter, and Manny and Winston and Angel with “You want to tap that?” They assume that he speaks their language, the language of lust.
Kroll shrugs. In the shower in the morning, he cups his soft dick in his hands, cannot make it inflate, always Elena's voice following him inside the water, laughing at his fleshy chest and the furry coating over his back and his big belly, accusing him You fooled me with that handsome face. Unable to talk back to her, even in death. Not even that horse girl will take you, she says from the grave. Manny and Winston and Angel say, “We could run a train on that one,” and they wait for his approval, his nod. His face is a big blank moon.
They wander back to the shop with their half-eaten lunches, leaving a breadcrumb trail of litter, and Kroll follows them. He walks ten paces behind.Manny mutters, “The dude is a fucking eunuch.” “What is that?” asks Winston.“ It's the half-horse, half-man thing,” says Angel. “No, man, that's a centaur.” Manny is an expert. He is the Head Technician. He no longer has to install auto glass. He no longer has to pick tiny slivers of melted rock from his palms. He only has to sign the forms. He is, as he reminds Kroll every day, In Charge. Just because Kroll is the boss's kid or some shit, doesn't mean that Kroll is In Charge. Manny is In Charge.
“You know what the thing is about that half-horse thing?” says Winston, who is a tiny man, not more than a jockey, with bulging biceps. “They have, like, the man's body on the top, but on the bottom, they have this fucking horse cock.” “So?” Manny asks. “You ever seen a horse cock, man? It's fucking huge. What woman would not want one of those eunuch things?” “Centaur,” corrects Angel, and there, in a lunch break, the three stooges of Seppeler Oldsmobile have been educated. What woman would not want a eunuch like Kroll?
He knows this feeling: wind knocked out, a gangrenous chasm expanding behind the sternum, a tumble-down-the-stairs in the solar plexus. Deep breathing with exposed cavities, with crown fallen to the back of the mouth, the corporeal equivalent of dental drill, an emotional neuralgia. All of it: loneliness.What he did to avoid it all the days of his life until now: booze and marriage and vocational pursuits, the ponies and the longnecks and the dogs, the lanky Juanita who cleaned toilets at the Marriot Courtyard in Roslyn, the elfin Yulduz who posted bail.
It kept him in shape, this dodging.In the driveway, Kroll wears rubber gloves and safety glasses. He lays protective drapes over the hood of the white van, slipping out the windshield wipers and the molding and the cowl. He taps out the windshield, where the bat-nick has bloomed to a cascading hairline—it snaps into two sharp halves—and strips the old adhesive away. The car always looks so vulnerable this way: windowless. He takes the new sheath of glass and spreads the glue thick, in a perfect outline, and sets it inside the windshield outline. He waits, in the winter afternoon, for the adhesive to dry, to shrink and suck the new glass in permanently, and then he replaces the cowl and the molding, and the van is restored. It is once again safe.
What he does now, with the smell of Sophia still in his mind, in the van, is revolutionary for him: He feels it. Loneliness. It howls. Lonely Lobo. Rips a gash over his chest, spills out onto pavement: a celebration. It feels wonderful. Loneliness feels wonderful, fiesta, piñata, whatever Spanish words he knows, the two, the three, alive and snapping like castanets, twirling, twisting wrists of flamenco. Lonely, I love you. Lonely, you are no big deal. Lonely, I am not afraid. I am alone. My wife is dead. Lonely, I love you. I give myself to you, Lonely. I love you.His sadness is not chemical; it's physical. Sadness has seeped into his organs, his bones, marrow, veins, capillaries, bronchia, alveoli. He has lived and breathed sadness. It brushed against his cilia, rooted in his sinuses. No dose of Zoloft could cure it, just as no toke, no sip of alcohol anodyne. He would love his sadness, his constant companion, his old friend.
This magical blue, this perfect silence of twilight, this gift of vision: life without Elena would have been painfully lonely, but he would have learned to enjoy that pain, the way 10th grade Mrs. Blanchard said she loved to brush her teeth until they bled, enjoyed the prick of flossing and the little red river in the porcelain sink. The tiniest joys, the most tolerable pain.
And then, yes, the rain. The winter rain: the twentieth and last gray day. Swish and swirl of palm fronds mopping along the deserted street. A gray sky, the canvas of his future dipped in motor oil, an Exxon-drenched pelican. There is no cinematic comparison, not now: it's real, and he feels it. The curb, his oasis, his island, his flooded homeland. Sitting, erect, Elena's mordant yoga instructions, tummy tucked, spine straight, vertical lines of monsoon rain, I love you. I am afraid and I love you.
This is what life would have been like without Elena, had she never briefly entered his life: drinking alone on the couch, watching the game, going to work and home and back again, and even if he did not receive a million-dollar prize for her dying, like everyone else who lost a spouse that day, he has been given something else. She has left him this new life in her will.
“David? Is that you?” His big born again mommy calls from behind the screen door. “What are you doing out there?”
He grows eyes on his soon-to-be-bald spot, the one lock of long hair missed by the Supercuts razor: his antennae. Orange light seeps out from behind her; warm and dry inside, open door, out of the doghouse, but he does not turn around.
“David?”In her plastic wrap, saran raincoat, she appears before him, opens her translucent hermitage. “David, it's all right. It's all right.”
Her hand is warm on his face, on the small of his back, though she does not touch him. She levitates him, two fingers, off the ground, coaxing, following, into the house, more sisters and a stepfather, welcoming countenances, hot chocolate, the good towel, the television.