Why does anyone care about sports? There’s a woman in the stands who cares because they’re the last thing she’s got that gives her straight answers. She used to be a cross-country skier at the elite level. She sacrificed all her teenage years to skiing long-distance trails, evening after evening with a headlamp and tears streaming from cold and exhaustion, and all the pain and all the losses, and all the things other high school kids were doing with their free time that she could never be part of. But if you were to ask her now if she regrets anything, she’d shake her head. If you were to ask what she would have done if she could go back in time, she’d answer without hesitation: “Train harder.” She can’t explain why she cares about sports, because she’s learned that if you have to ask the question, you simply wouldn’t understand her answer.
Kevin gives him a quick hug, so fleeting that no one would notice, but still so hard that it speaks volumes. He can never sleep after games, and that’s the only time he smokes. Only best friends know that sort of thing about each other. Only two boys who once lay side by side under the covers, reading comics by flashlight and realizing that the reason they always felt like outsiders was because they were superheroes.
Robbie Holt is standing in the street hating himself. He wouldn’t have gone outside voluntarily today unless he’d run out of drink at home again. He looks at the roof of the rink, estimates in his head where they ought to be in the game now. It’s a peculiar sort of angst, the one he lives with, knowing that you had the greatest moment of your life at the age of seventeen.
In a lifetime, maybe there is only one true experience of bliss, and maybe this was Wave’s. The peyote came forward in a surge and she heard herself say, “Oh!”—the way an actress would portray a sudden realization. “Oh,” she said, and then she wasn’t altogether in her body.
His voice was kind of scratchy and deep, and it made me think of stoners and heavy-metal music from the 1980s. The intonation and inflection and so forth. First time I heard him it occurred to me that there are ways of speaking, maybe even certain ways of moving your tongue and your voice box, that only a particular generation of humans learn how to do. I sometimes thought that my uncle had a way of talking that was preserved in amber from 1983, and even from the first time he spoke to me I thought it was amazing.
I like to think I know what death is. I like to think it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today’s my birthday.
It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
Ever since that late September afternoon in 1954, the never to be forgotten afternoon he had spent with Cassie watching Mays and Rhodes defeat the Indians, baseball had been a core obsession, and once he began playing in earnest the next year, he had proved to be surprisingly good at it, as good as the best players around him, strong in the field, strong at bat, with an innate feel for the nuances of any given situation during the course of a game, and when a person discovers he can do something well, he tends to want to keep doing it, to do it as often as he possibly can.
Mildred’s help came in the form of a reading list, of several reading lists over the months that followed, and with movie theaters temporarily off-limits, for the first time in her life Rose satisfied her hunger for stories with novels, good novels, not the crime novels and bestsellers she might have gravitated to on her own but the books that Mildred recommended, classics to be sure, but always selected with Rose in mind, books that Mildred felt Rose would enjoy, which meant that Moby-Dick and Ulysses and The Magic Mountain were never on any of the lists, since those books would have been too daunting for the meagerly trained Rose, but how many others there were to choose from, and as the months passed and her baby grew inside her, Rose spent her days swimming in the pages of books, and although there were a few disappointments among the dozens she read (The Sun Also Rises, for example, which struck her as fake and shallow), nearly all the others lured her in and kept her engrossed from first to last, among them Tender Is The Night, Pride and Prejudice, The House of Mirth, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, The Charterhouse of Parma, First Love, Dubliners, Light in August, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Washington Square, The Scarlet Letter, Main Street, Jane Eyre, and numerous others, but of all the writers she discovered during her confinement, it was Tolstoy who said the most to her, Tolstoy, who understood all of life, it seemed to her, everything there was to know about the human heart and the human mind, no matter if the heart or mind belonged to a man or a woman, and how was it possible, she wondered, for a man to know what Tolstoy knew about women, it made no sense that one man could be all men and all women, and therefore she marched through most of what Tolstoy had written, not just the big novels like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection, but the shorter works as well, the novellas and stories, none more powerful to her than the one-hundred-page Family Happiness, the story of a young bride and her gradual disillusionment, a work that hit so close to home that she wept at the end, and when Stanley returned to the apartment that evening, he was alarmed to see her in such a state, for even though she had finished the story at three in the afternoon, her eyes were still wet with tears.
Because she was nervous herself, and because Stanley continued to sit there mostly in silence, she wound up talking for the two of them, which is to say, she talked too much, and as the minutes ticked by she grew more and more appalled with herself for rattling on like a brainless chatterbox, bragging about her sister, for example, and telling him what a brilliant student Mildred was, summa cum laude from Hunter last June and now enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia, the only woman in the English Department, one of only three Jews, imagine how proud the family was, and no sooner did she mention the family than she was on her way to Uncle Archie, her father’s younger brother, Archie Adler, the keyboard man with the Downtown Quintet, currently playing at Moe’s Hideout on fifty-second Street, and how inspiring it was to have a musician in the family, an artist, a renegade who thought about other things besides making money, yes she loved her Uncle Archie, he was far and away her favorite relative, and then, inevitably, she began talking about her work with Schneiderman, enumerating all the things he had taught her in the past year and a half, grump, foul-mouthed Schneiderman, who would take her to the Bowery on Sunday afternoons to hunt for old winos and bums, broken creatures with their white beards and long white hair, magnificent heads, the heads of ancient prophets and kings, and Schneiderman would give these men money to come to the studio to pose for him, in the most part in costumes, the old men dressed up in turbans and gowns and velvet robes, in the same way Rembrandt had dressed up the down-and-outs of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, and that was the light they used with these men, Rembrandt’s light, light and dark together, deep shadow, all shadow with the merest touch of light, and by now Schneiderman had enough faith in her to allow her to set up the lighting on her own, she had made several dozen of these portraits by herself, and then she used the word chiaroscuro, and she understood that Stanley had no idea what she was talking about, that she could have been talking Japanese for all the sense it made to him, but still he went on looking at her, listening to her, rapt and silent, thunderstruck.
But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways.
It is commonplace to hear middle-class people declare that they enjoy their jury service because it gives them an insight into how other people think and live. As though there were no other way of discovering these things. They enjoy the brief illusion of community, the sense of joint purpose.
Often you see old men in the corner of dark pubs, discussing and gesticulating, using beer mugs and salt cellars to represent long-dead people and far-off places. At that moment they display a vitality missing in every other area of their lives. They light up. Unpacking a full story onto the table—here is a Churchill-fork, over there is a Czechoslovakia-napkin, here we find the accumulation of German troops represented by a collection of cold peas—they are reborn.
Irie, looking strangely like the crowd on top of the wall in her everyday garb of CND badges, graffiti-covered trousers, and beaded hair, shook her head in saddened disbelief. She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.
At the traffic lights he flipped a ten-pence coin and smiled when the result seemed to agree that Fate was pulling him toward another life. Like a dog on a leash round a corner. Generally, women can’t do this, but men retain the ancient ability to leave a family and a past. They just unhook themselves, like removing a fake beard, and skulk discreetly back into society, changed men. Unrecognizable. In this manner, a new Archie is about to emerge. We have caught him on the hop. For he is in a past-tense, future-perfect kind of mood. He is in a maybe this, maybe that kind of mood. When he approaches a forked road, he slows down, checks his undistinguished face in the rearview mirror, and quite indiscriminately chooses a route he’s never taken before, a residential street leading to a place called Queen’s Park. Go straight past Go!, Archie-boy, he tells himself; collect two hundred, and don’t for Gawd’s sake look back.
In one of the patches of waiting that were like pleats in time, while Corinne remained at their father’s bedside in case he should wake, Marianne and Judd, faint with hunger, had a quick meal in the hospital cafeteria; and afterward, grateful for each other’s company like old friends who’d somehow forgotten how much they liked each other, went outside to walk for a half hour in the bright windy autumn air.
Of course he knew beauty doesn’t exist. He hadn’t known then but he knew now. Beauty is a matter of perspective, subjectivity. Cultural prejudice. You require a human eye, a human brain, a human vocabulary. In nature, there’s nothing.
Still beauty gives comfort. Who knows why?
The purple wildflowers, the grey dirt, the smell of the pine needles cooling. The tall trees halved by lightning. The waning sun on the hills in the distance, bright blue and white. Whose bike was she riding anyway? A log-hewn fence. The wail of a far-away truck slowing. The monotony of an unburned forest on the sun-drenched hillside. Why did she have to be tipsy before she could notice anything?
To be described is to be seduced. Shit. One turn of phrase. One thing noticed that she’d never noticed. It worked always.
Twenty-two years of struggle for what—your child sits inside at an Ikea table staring into a screen while outside the sky changes, the sun rises and falls, hawks float like zeppelins. This was the common criminal pursuit of all contemporary humankind. Give my child an Ikea desk and twelve hours a day of sedentary typing. This will mean success for me, them, our family, our lineage. She would not pursue this. She would not subject her children to this. They would not seek these specious things, no. It was only about making them loved in a moment in the sun.
“The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down” (they join in wild laughter).
Just cling to me and all will be well.
Don’t you remember? I wished you your happy returns in the bathroom.
Kiss you? In public? On the platform? Before the boy? Have you taken leave of your senses?
A collision! Oh that would be wonderful!
One minute picking happy at the dung, on the road, in the sun, with now and then a dust bath, and then — bang! – all her troubles over.
In her forties now she’d be, I don’t know, fifty, girding up her lovely little loins, getting ready for the change…
In spite of all it is a blessed thing to be alive in such weather, and out of hospital.
Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrae that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.
Broad and open like a summer waitress who says there you go when she deposits the food in front of you.