The summer after my sophomore year of high school, my mother and I took a trip to Chicago to visit my brother James and to give my father time to move out of the house. I knew what was happening; she hadn’t tricked me into going on vacation to give him time to pack up his boxes with whatever sad items he thought he might need in his sad apartment on the other side of town. Everything was in the open. We talked about it, and him, during the drive, and I had visions of my father carefully folding his underwear before placing each pair into a cardboard suitcase — soon he would be off on his life as a hobo, soon he would be immersed in his new, diluted existence. My mother let me drive to and from Chicago with just my temps, even into the city. Even on the Dan Ryan.
We lived in a town in southern Illinois called Farrow. Farrow was about fifteen miles east of the Mississippi; the trip was just under three hours, and here is what I learned: My father was leaving, my mother said, because she had asked him to go. She had asked him to go, she said, because somewhere along the line, ten or fifteen years into the marriage, they had definitively fallen out of love.
“It’s like a bath you’ve been in too long,” she said. “Eventually you look around and say, ‘This is absolutely not pleasurable.’” She shrugged. “So shouldn’t I get out? Tell me, Courtney. Shouldn’t my happiness be what matters? To myself?”
This conversation was for her own benefit; I held onto the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. My mother and I did not talk about things like this. But I listened. And as she talked, I realized I had always wanted to have these kinds of conversations with her, to get a sense of the back and forth of her life, to define and re-define happiness, weigh the matters of modern pain in our private ways, but that being her daughter had always felt like being, in a way, the family pet. Pleasant yet inconsequential, and somebody who could not possibly interfere.
They had agreed to divorce once my brother and I were moved out of the house, but my mother — and I only realized this years later, well after she was gone — was prone to cheap revelation, and had decided that one of the two of us out of the house was enough, and that she couldn’t wait another two years.
She decided it, she said, watching the very last patch of snow disappear from the front yard over the course of an afternoon. She explained that it was a metaphor about time and loss. I thought it was cheesy.
“He understands. I’ve warned him for a decade and he’s had his opportunities. He prefers Scotch and silence. It’s not as though this is a surprise,” she said. “It’s a rescheduled event.”
“Not for me,” I said. “Not for James.”
“That sounds like the beginning of self-pity, young lady.”
“Well,” I said. “Yeah.”
“I won’t have it.”
“I’m the one who has it.”
“If you could see it from my point of view,” she said, and I could hear her blowing air out from her pursed lips, trying and failing to whistle. “Oh my good lord, Courtney.”
I did want her to try harder, but not for any good reason.
* * *
Summer passed quickly. James decided not to come home, and instead stayed in Chicago, doing an “internship,” which I knew actually meant losing his virginity to a Jewish girl named Samantha who he’d met in his summer dorm. He whispered the news to me, on the phone, just as we were saying goodbye.
“She and I,” he said. “We’ve done it.”
“You had sex?”
I didn’t know what to say, as this wasn’t open territory for my brother and me, either.
Finally, I just said, “Congratulations.”
Dad did have a pathetic apartment on the other side of town. I had only imagined it that day in the car, but it turned out to be real. It had walls with fake-wood paneling, vertical slats of alternating darkness, one of them bowed and bubbled. He never bothered to fix it. The carpet was indoor/outdoor, and I imagined that if I tripped on my way to the kitchen I would skin my knees. There was usually rotten fruit in a plastic bowl in the kitchen — this summoned images of him at the grocery store, pondering a pile of ripe bananas — and sometimes, when I would come over, I would find three or four pizza boxes stacked outside his door. He had almost no furniture. However, he had a huge television. It loomed, dark and black, alone with the couch in the living room, always tuned to ESPN, muted.
Dad found a new girlfriend quickly. I wasn’t mad about it. Was I supposed to be? I don’t think I cared. I never cared. Her name was Trish, and she worked at the pet store in the mall. I hardly saw her, but when I did, she was nice, and she asked me about what books I liked to read. I told her that I only ever read “Deliverance,” over and over again, and she smiled and said, “Oh, nice. Is that with Holden Cauliflower?”
“It’s for the best, this divorce,” Dad said one July evening at dinner. We were alone. He was contemplative — I knew because he had brought out his Jim Croce albums and shown them to me.
“I guess so.”
“Imagine if you had to internalize that conflict. Imagine if that was built entirely into your brain.”
“That makes no sense.”
“This could have stuck with you for the rest of your life,” he said, staring off toward his bubbled wall. Was he drunk? “It could have led to permanence. This way, our problems are out in the open a little earlier, which means you don’t have to get stuck with them yourself. We communicate and relieve ourselves of burdens.”
“Are you a psychologist?”
“We’re both happier in our new and improved lives,” he continued. “That’s what’s central here. In fact, your mother and I have agreed on this point. Often. Things are cordial between us now. We email.”
“I’m not having problems,” I told him. “We don’t have to always talk about it. I’m not going to blow myself up.”
“How is your mother?”
“Knits?” he said, and his eyes went wide with wonderment. “Truly?”
I started to run, I don’t know why. I wasn’t an athlete, but there was something about the warm nights, running down mile-long abandoned streets after the first pain had come and gone and you’d settled into something steady. I thought about it like a long closed tunnel, like there was a roof over me and walls on both sides — a roof of invisible energy, like the walls of prison cells in science-fiction movies — and even if it rained the rain didn’t touch me, it just spread out around me as I went. I grew, and one day Dad looked at me angrily and said, “You’re taller than me, aren’t you?”
I was a cashier at the grocery store, and I was too fast. I used to whip items down the metal runway at a pace that made the bag-boys hate me. I was as fast as the laser that read the bar code. Maybe faster. Once, my manager walked by and raised her eyebrows, then nodded with great respect at the work I was doing. In her eyes I could see myself, ten years later, having won all the cashier awards, moving up into the ranks of power-teller elite. I went faster.
I’ve always had this one problem, with every task in life, and I still have it today, even though I’m far away from that place and even though I’m no longer the same person — but for this. I did not know how to say it then, as I was much, much too young. Here is how I think of it now: I’m stuck in time, and we all are, and it does not matter how much work we do. We can’t get out, either way.
* * *
Mr. Carpenter had been teaching at my high school for three years when I got into his AP bio class. Every girl wanted to get into Mr. Carpenter’s AP bio class. Every boy, too. He obviously got high. He was hot. He was funny. He rode his bike to work. He talked like us, he felt like he came from the same place we did. He was usually tan in September because he guided kayak trips in Idaho over the summer. In his class you dissected a fetal pig and learned about electrophoresis. He seemed aware of the existence of the Internet. He called us his little lemmings whenever we asked about grades.
On the first day of class, I remember sitting down in his room with everyone else, the tension high as we waited for him to come in from the hall, where he’d greeted us one by one. He was happy because it was the fall. He told us this after the bell rang, and after we made our introductions.
“We think of it as a time of death,” he said, pacing in front of his blackboard. He looked up with a sober face. “You English nerds. Tell me what snow means in a poem.”
“Death,” said a stoner kid in the front, stupidly. Everyone laughed.
“No, no,” said Mr. Carpenter, smiling along now. “Jeremy’s exactly right,” he said, pointing, showing us that he was already remembering names. He was a virtuoso teacher and he cared, very deeply, about knowing us personally.
“And there is a certain beauty to that. But in here, snow is not death. Snow is a product of a process that itself is a product of another process. There’s a web of meaning that’s different than the web of meaning you find in literature, or even the meaning we give to ideas, to events. There is no right and wrong in nature. Only physical phenomenon. Life changes its habits because of it. The leaves falling from a tree is not death. A squirrel hiding itself away is not death. It’s all life.”
“Oh my God,” Holly, my lab partner, muttered to me. “I just creamed my jeans.”
“Now,” continued Mr. Carpenter. “Since this is the first day, we have to have a big conversation. A meta conversation. Understand?”
“No,” said that same stoner kid, Jeremy. He didn’t get as many laughs as he had. What he was only now just understanding was that you couldn’t use the same teacher-eroding material on Mr. Carpenter. We didn’t want to pick away at him, piece by piece, until he was nothing more than a pile of dust. We all wanted him to survive.
“It means above,” said Mr. Carpenter, ignoring him. “It means taking a step back and thinking about the big picture. Okay?” I found myself nodding along with him. He noticed me and picked up on my enthusiasm. “So here’s the challenge for you today. I know we have a big test at the end of the year, and I know you all want to do well on that. And we will. I promise. You’ll all know enough to get your 5s and get your credits at your dream colleges. But for today, forget about that. Here’s the challenge: I want you to huddle up with your lab partners, no books, take twenty minutes, and come up with the definition of life.”
I noticed that he said “the” and not “a,” which was different than what most of the young teachers implied about truth and definitions, no matter what class. They liked to say “voices” and “readings” and “models” and “the situation of the observer.” I wondered, then, what would happen if you planted Mr. Carpenter down in the middle of 5th period Theory of Knowledge. I imagined him punching Dr. Masterson right in the face.
We all sat quietly, waiting for more from him. It didn’t come.
He gathered up his notebooks and went and sat at his desk. I could see that he was reading a magazine. It had a mountain climber on the cover.
“Do you know?” Holly asked me.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“What about, like, breathing? Or heart beats? Something about all the systems.”
“What about plants?”
“Oh yeah,” she said, and snapped her gum a little. Then she frowned. She was wearing a bright yellow shirt with a tie at the ribs, the kind of first-day item that could make or break an entire year for somebody. I thought it would make her. It made her new big boobs look like binary stars.
“What about something having to do with energy?” I said. “You know? Like something that uses energy is alive.”
“That’s really good, Courtney,” she said, nodding. “Let’s use that.”
I looked down at my hands. “Okay.”
We did. When I said it he nodded, then said, “Okay, Courtney. What about a car?”
“What about a car?”
“It uses energy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s a car. It’s not natural.”
“So something has to be natural to be alive?”
“I think so,” I said, but already I was starting to feel the sinking feeling I sometimes felt in school, when I talked too much and realized, as I spoke, that I knew, honestly, nothing. Usually I wouldn’t have said anything, just to keep this exact thing from happening.
“What do you mean by natural?” he asked. My heart now was beating faster and I could feel my cheeks turning red. I realized he wasn’t going to stop. “What would you say about a clone? Or a baby born from artificial insemination?”
“I would call those natural.” Now I was just answering.
“Because they’re based on things — processes? — that already existed. That evolved.”
“Okay, so that’s a new idea,” he said. He looked like he might go to the chalkboard and write it, which gave me a quick thrill, but he decided not to, and turned again, looking down, nodding, thinking.
“Life is something that has evolved over time. Now that might work for a broader definition of life, life in the abstract, but it still doesn’t help us situationally. Say we’re both looking at a motorcycle.” He looked up. “It’s evolved, hasn’t it? Over the course of generations, different designers have changed it and improved its design. No? So can you tell me a definitive reason that it’s not alive?”
“Because it’s made out of metal?”
“Your blood has iron in it.”
“All those things you just said, though,” I said. “Those were people changing it.”
“Yes, but I’m not so sure that matters for the analogy. Let’s set that aside. Any other reasons?”
Silence. Everyone staring. In my mind I saw the motorcycle parked on the street in front of my father’s apartment complex. I imagined him walking toward it, wearing some kind of leather suit, a big helmet under his arm. Somewhere there was a fire decal.
“I don’t know,” I said, and smiled. “No. I guess I just don’t know.”
I loved Mr. Carpenter by October. There was never a moment or a comment, a time his hand brushed my wrist as we all engaged our Bunsen burners. It just happened. It was when I focused on him that the future seemed the biggest, the most real, the most open. My brain felt big. I was never the smart student, but it was as though, from that first day, I had simply decided to set that aside in the same way we had set my argument about evolution aside; suddenly I could do the work. I had never mattered more.
I knew about the love because of my showers in the morning, when I would still be half-asleep, the water coming down over my face, and I would already be thinking about him as I crawled to life. I had had four boyfriends, three if you didn’t count a summer hookup with my cousin’s friend Phillip from Phoenix, who had come to stay for three weeks and who had talked, a lot, about web sites. He had once gotten me alone in my bedroom and had sat on the bed and had said, “I’m interested in romantic” — he touched my hand — “relationships.” That was the end.
The other three, the real boyfriends, had come and gone like thunderstorms. They were based on awkward touching, fear and sex in the dark guest bedrooms of absent parents’ homes. I would see these boyfriends — acne-ridden farm kids, really — in the halls, and it was like I didn’t know them, that we had never met, that none of us were even there.
In the shower, Mr. Carpenter would come into my mind and ask questions about science. Sometimes they were hard questions that gave me that same feeling I’d felt on the first day of class, embarrassed but excited, too, about what it was possible to think about. To me already he seemed like he might be a failed intellectual, someone who had been forced to settle for high school teaching, even though he’d once aspired to something more, like wildlife fieldwork in an unspecified jungle, and his failure made him all the more tragic and beautiful. I had no reason to believe this, but I had invented facts about him, and I thought I saw it in the way that he walked in front of the chalkboard, I thought I heard it in his disdain for college, and his disdain for the AP test we were working toward. That being smart was something you found when you were alone. He told us that being smart was being able to destroy things as much as it was to make things. And to know which things deserved to be destroyed and which things deserved to keep existing.
In the shower he would also approach me physically. This was much less abstract. It was my mother’s shower, the same shower I had used since I was five, when my parents and I first moved in to the house. There was the ornamental tile with the peacock on it, there was the same suction-cupped shampoo station behind the showerhead. There was Mr. Carpenter. In those first weeks, he would be wearing his swimsuit when he entered the shower, as though even my imagination was unhappy with me, and would still not let me go past PG-13. He would kiss me, and then we would shampoo each others’ hair.
“How is your father?” my mom asked me, after one of these October showers. “Is he still dating that woman?”
“I think so,” I told her. “I haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks. He hasn’t said anything.”
“It certainly didn’t take him long,” she said.
“I thought you guys mutually agreed to get a divorce, though.”
“I can still observe that it didn’t take him long, can’t I?”
“You can do whatever you want,” I told her. I was tired of navigating her brain and heart both. She had had trouble dating. She had tried, even though she’d also tried to keep it from me. One night I had looked out the window and had seen her being dropped off by someone in a red SUV. I had seen what I thought was a goodnight kiss, but I had also seen her storm out of the huge truck and climb down and slam the door. I watched her stomp her way across the driveway in her heels as the truck slowly, weirdly reversed away, like a fat alpha seal sliding backwards, into the ocean, having already eaten its yabbie lobster.
“Is he eating?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “He stopped eating completely.”
“He was always very good at making pancakes,” she said. “At least he can make those.”
“He eats stones now. He crushes them in his mortar and pestle and makes shakes with them.”
“Now you’re just being funny,” said Mom.
I got to class a minute late, and when I came through the door, Mr. Carpenter glanced over and said, “Oh, Courtney. We’re just talking about something new here.”
I went to my lab table and sat down next to Holly and saw what he’d written on the board: Krueger Sport Game Park.
“What is it?” I asked Holly. Mr. Carpenter was talking about elk.
“It’s that place between here and Carbondale,” she said. “Out in the middle of nowhere. Where those hunters can come on vacation.”
“—in our county,” Mr. Carpenter said. “Which means tax dollars, which means less ethics, period. Which complicates things even more.”
Mr. Carpenter continued to speak about the Krueger Game Park, and as he explained it, I remembered its existence, and people talking about it when it first opened. It was a place you could go to hunt exotic game without really having to hunt. It was a preserve, stocked with deer and elk and antelope and rams and wild boar, so many that it was impossible not to run into something shootable after only ten minutes of strolling. Mr. Carpenter then rolled the television into the room and turned out the lights. I remembered some of the video from the news, years before. A PETA person had snuck in and made the tape. It showed an employee herding deer toward a guest, using a pickup truck to scare them and run them into a trap. Then a man stood up from behind some bushes and started shooting a machine gun. The video was grainy and shaky, and it felt like we were watching porn. The bullets tore into the deer and ripped one line of holes in its side, all in a perfect row, as though someone had glued red sequins from its hindquarters to its chest.
“Gross,” Holly said. She had a huge open-mouthed frown on her face. I could see that everyone’s shoulders, even in the dark, were tensed up. When the movie was over, Mr. Carpenter hit the lights and turned off the TV.
“What’s wrong with this?” he asked.
“It’s like the cruelest thing I’ve ever seen in my life?” Holly said, half-raising her hand.
“Because it’s a video of people hunting? Isn’t hunting a part of our collective history? Isn’t it where our history is? Aren’t we omnivores?”
“Dudes have like bazookas,” said Nick Wesley, a baseball player who sat to the right of us. Holly liked him. I thought he liked her, too. I looked at him and wondered whether he was making the argument out of love for her, or real outrage at the video. I could see how sometimes it could be difficult to keep those things apart, love and thinking. I could also see Nick Wesley blowing deer away with a machine gun.
“So if it were to be more sporting,” said Mr. Carpenter, “if it were to seem as though the deer had a chance to escape, this would be, what, less unethical?”
“Totally,” said Nick, and that’s when I saw him glance over to us, to Holly. He looked back at Mr. Carpenter. “I mean my dad hunts. I’ve gone with him. It’s no big deal, I’m not saying I’m like for Bambi and against everyone who kills Bambi. But these guys don’t have to do anything, they don’t have to know anything at all. That’s why it sucks. It’s like fishing in one of those stocked ponds at boat shows. It’s like what’s wrong with you that you’re such an idiot that you think you did something good when you catch one?”
Our project for that week was to all write letter to the county, expressing our outrage with Krueger. There was a county policy meeting open to the public coming up in a few weeks, and he urged us to attend, and to speak out against Krueger. Mr. Carpenter told us that part of biology was necessarily activism. He told us that it wasn’t science anymore, but it didn’t matter. He told us that the world we lived in made it that way.
* * *
The first time we were alone together was a few weeks later, for student-teacher conferences. It wasn’t supposed to be just me — it was supposed to be Holly and me together, but she was sick. We needed to talk to him about our plant experiment. More specifically, to talk to him about why all our plants were dead.
His office was back behind the lab. It had big glass windows, books in shelves, and lots of pictures. There were a few on the wall of him next to his kayak, sitting on the rocks in the sun. There was one of him in the rapids. He also had a computer that looked like an Atari.
“This kind of thing just happens sometimes,” he said. “Don’t sweat it too bad. I’m not going to flunk you. You can’t control it.” He seemed distracted, and he read some of our lab report draft. We were looking at our dead plants, ten of them, each in its own Styrofoam container, curled over and brown. Holly and I had overwatered.
He turned his big brown eyes right to me, and I froze.
“What are you going to do now?”
He sounded like my dad. Maybe he isn’t twenty-eight, I thought. Maybe he’s more like thirty-five.
I smiled too much. “You mean, like, change the experiment?”
“No,” he said. “I just mean finding a way to use what you have here. Were you measuring your water? How good were your notes along the way?”
He gave me some ideas and I copied down into my notebook. A list with bullet points on my college-ruled paper. I nodded as though I heard anything he said.
When we were through talking about the plants, he asked me how everything was going in class, and I told him fine. Then he said, looking down into his grade book, “You’re doing well. Co-dominance. Tough the first time you see it. And I know that Holly is benefiting from being next to you, too. I appreciate that.”
“You’re good at this,” he said, leaning back into his chair, closing the book. “You should keep doing this. Are you interested in the sciences? For a career?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. I haven’t decided yet, I guess.”
“The good thing is that you don’t have to for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t decide to be a teacher until a few years ago. I did a lot after college.”
“You know,” he said. “Circus.”
“Just a lot of things I’d been wanting to do.”
“Like that?” I asked, and pointed to the picture of the kayak.
He warmed up. We talked for what even I could tell was an inappropriate amount of time. And he said things.
That day I ran. It was cool outside, and I went east, down the road Krueger was on. It was too far away, and I knew I wouldn’t get to it, but I went anyway, pulled by the force of the straight line that led to the thing he cared about so much. I fell into the stable place where my legs stopped burning as much and I thought of what he had told me about his time as a guide on whitewater trips. In Idaho once, he told me, one night with his friends, between chartered trips, he’d been drinking, and they were camped on a small island. They needed wood, and there wasn’t any, and so he’d gone through the dark to his kayak, paddled to shore, found wood and had then started paddling back to the island. No life jacket, no light, no skirt on the kayak. Somewhere in the middle of the river, he said, he got pulled into a current, and before he could react, he was heading downstream, pile of wood in his lap, unable to do much in the way of paddling. It was just as he dumped the wood over the side that his kayak dropped down into a hole. The bow hit a rock that jolted him forward, and then he was underwater, upside down, his legs still in the kayak, pinned against a vertical stone by a thousand pounds of river force. I asked him if he panicked and he said that he had, but that it didn’t make a difference, because he could hardly move. But he said then, after he struggled for a few seconds, and after the feelings passed through his mind, he suddenly became extra-rational. He thought: I have two minutes. I refuse to die, here, like this. And so underwater, the current still mashing him sideways, he managed to plant his paddle between the rock and the kayak, and then slowly, hand over hand, pull his legs from the boat and slither around the side, then crawl, inches at a time, up the length of the long rod. The kayak was pinned so forcefully against the rock that it didn’t even budge as he moved. “Imagine trying to free-climb up a cliff with a person on your back,” he said, and I did, I imagined it. Being stuck.
After seeing it in my mind a number of times, and trying, over and over again, to feel what it must have felt like for those first moments underwater, my running slowed down, and I came to a gas station.
I realized I was at the edge of Preston, the next town down, and that I had run nine miles.
I was exhausted. Instead of running home, through the night, I called my mom to pick me up, told her that I’d gone way too far, and then drank a Sprite as I sat on the picnic bench and waited.
“How is your mother?” my dad asked me the week before Halloween. It was a Thursday evening. I was about to go to the town hall meeting, the one Mr. Carpenter had asked us to attend. We were having dinner. Fish sticks. “I haven’t seen many emails from her lately.”
He held a fish stick like a cigar, thoughtfully, and then started dipping it into some ketchup with way too much enthusiasm.
“She’s fine,” I said. “Why don’t you just call her if you want to talk to her?”
“That’s okay,” he said. “We prefer to use email.”
My parents both talked about email as though they were not only were the first people in America to find out about it, but as though they perhaps had invented it themselves. Neither of them seemed to have any memory of my brother James sitting down with them for hours at a time in front of the computer, trying to explain what it meant to log on to something. I can remember James sitting at the desk, head down, mentally drained and defeated, and both of them sitting in chairs behind him, leaning forward, glasses on, taking notes.
“So what’s this meeting tonight?” he asked. “Is that a new sweater?”
“I told you,” I said. “Krueger. The Community Center.”
“Right,” he said. “You’re in a saving the planet phase now.”
“It’s not a phase,” I said. “It’s me.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, smiling. He put his hands up defensively. “I’m joking.” He reached for a new fish stick, then stopped himself before eating it. “But actually it probably is a phase,” he said after a moment of reflection. “I’ve seen you go through them. I’ve been here for as long as you’ve been here.”
“You mean on the planet Earth?”
“Cort,” he said. “Do you not remember when you were a historian? And then when you were a writer? And then when you were a potter?”
One of my pots was on the shelf above my dad’s head.
“I have interests.”
“I know, honey,” he said. He could see how mad I was. “I’m sorry.”
I walked to the Community Center instead of letting him give me a ride. It was a nice crisp October night. I walked past Dalton’s, the grocery store where I’d worked. I’d quit just before the start of school. I wanted As, not Cs. I wanted to be the person the teacher thanked in private, not the one he asked other people to help, not the one riding her bike to the store after school, only to be hypnotized by the beep of the machine and the tit-stares of old men buying peanuts. I didn’t miss it at all. When I looked at its blue awning I thought about all of the other kids inside, enslaved, mopping and sweeping and facing up cans of tomato paste.
The Center was downtown, a flat one-story building with tan walls and dark red window shutters that looked like it had been imported from 1905. There were three bars across the street from the parking lot — one of them had a line of motorcycles out front — and the library was next door. The parking lot looked full, and as I walked toward the door, I wondered how many other kids from class would come. It seemed possible that Mr. Carpenter would do something dramatic, especially if enough of us were there for him. I imagined him giving a speech from the crowd, standing up, a strong voice of reason, cutting through everyone’s greed. I imagined him bringing in video of elk in the wild to give an example of another version of elk-life. I imagined us all standing up, one by one, and booing to drown out the voice of Mr. Krueger and his sons. I didn’t even know if he had sons, but if he did, I thought that they would be evil, and albino, and twins.
People were bustling and talking; there was tension in the room. The lights were up high and I could smell popcorn and coffee. I saw Mr. Carpenter sitting by himself in a middle row. I could see the back of his head. His blond hair looked like it was combed for once, and he was wearing a nice shirt.
There was no one else from class.
After a few more minutes of crowd murmurs, two members of the County Board brought the meeting to order and a man wearing a toupee expertly operated a gavel and then thanked us all for coming. “And I know that most of you are here for the same issue,” he said, “so we’ll get to that immediately, and then any other topic we can address after a break.” My heart was crazy now; it’s too complicated to know what it was beating for, and how much of it was him and how much of it was the hunting— I think I cared about the deer that got shot — but it didn’t matter then. Something was there and its source was irrelevant. It was so easy to feel nothing, all the time, and I held on as hard as I could, because the worst thing, I thought, now, would be for it to go away.
“I think Mary Geller here in the front row would like to say a few things about her proposal to make quite a few interesting changes to the public pool,” said the toupee.
There was silence from the crowd as he looked around. Everyone was finally settled into their seats.
“Without further ado, then, I’ll let Mary have the floor. She can make her case.”
I didn’t quite understand what was happening until a half-hour had passed. There was applause, and then a woman proceeded to speak about the tiles, changing rooms, fence, depth, diving boards, lawn, concessions, tickets, fees, special days, lifeguard coverage, chlorine, filters, and leaf removal at the swimming pool in Abraham Lincoln Park.
She had data with her. Data she had collected over the summer. She told us that she had finally tabulated it all. She held up a graph. She had recommendations.
Another half-hour passed, filled with questions from the crowd and conversations about what moneys were available. I remember hearing somebody say, “Yes, but what about other inflatable options? Are we being myopic?”
Eventually the group reached a consensus on the pool, and one of the council-members said, “Well thank you, thanks everybody. We have a few other issues that we can get to after a short break. Looks like we’ll be discussing”—he looked down — “the bike trail, and we have a man from ComEd here to talk about new electricity policies.” He looked up, smiled. “Then we’ll have an open floor. Thanks.”
When Mr. Carpenter stood up, it didn’t look as dramatic as I wanted it to look; everybody else was in the process of standing, too, milling about, chatting, gathering their purses and jackets and hats. We were our town being our town. It was obvious to me that they were all leaving, and that nobody was even going to stay for the second half. I felt it coming — it fit so well. He didn’t know because he wasn’t from here.
“Sir,” he said, raising his hand.
He said it loudly, but still, my heart almost broke.
The toupee man noticed, nodded at Mr. Carpenter. People continued to trickle.
“Can we talk about the wholesale slaughter of caged wildlife that goes on at the Krueger Park every day?”
Some people stopped talking, but not everyone. Toupee nodded and held out his hand, and I guessed that his thought was: We’ve got a crazy.
“That can be addressed when the floor is open,” he said.
“Shaun Carpenter,” said Mr. Carpenter. “Local biology teacher.”
“We received the letters, we are aware of your class’s concern. We have you slated for 8:45.”
“No one will be here at 8:45, sir,” he said a little louder.
We were sitting in a community center in a small town with local politicians, and it was over, wholly, before it had ever started, and I saw Mr. Carpenter standing there, shaking his head a little, obviously enraged, and I watched everyone continue to filter out of the room, a few of them looking back over their shoulders at him as he made his way down his aisle and then up to the front table. I was elated, seeing him fail. I can’t explain. He leaned in close to the toupee man and I could see him speaking passionately, and I could see the man absorbing every bit of passion with condescending nods, even as he packed papers into his briefcase, and I thought of Mr. Carpenter stuck in his kayak, underwater, sitting upside down, holding his breath. How he had won then, in his way, and now something that looked so small was so much stronger than him. He could maybe have done more. He might have stayed longer. But when the conversation ended, I watched him stand, look up at the ceiling, return to his chair, get his jacket, and storm out. He never looked at me.
I followed him outside. I thought he might go lean against his car to cool off. Then he would come back and wait for his time.
“It’s so nice to see some of our young people interested in the goings on in the government,” I heard someone say. The toupee man was behind me.
I kept watching Mr. Carpenter. He did go to his car, for a second. But only to check to make sure his doors were locked. Then he put his hands in his pockets, crossed the street, and started beating up a garbage can.
I continued to watch as punched the metal can right in the face and got it onto the ground, then mashed it from the top with stomps. The trash all spilled out onto the sidewalk around his feet. It was loud; I could hear him swearing, too. He jumped onto some fast food leftovers.
He kicked the barrel one last time with a huge football kick, then walked into one of the bars.
“I know,” I said, turning to the toupee man, who had just watched the same thing I had. “I couldn’t stop thinking about that pool.”
He was still looking across the street, at the garbage Mr. Carpenter had attacked.
I shrugged. “We have to keep cool in the summer.”
I waited. I didn’t go back inside for the second half. There was nobody there, anyway. They’d all come to talk about the pool. I could hear a few voices droning through the door behind me as I sat alone on a bench, watching the front of the bar.
It was past 9:00 when he came out. The meeting had ended, and toupee man had offered me a ride home when he saw that I was still outside.
“No,” I told him. “I have a ride coming.”
He looked at me curiously and said goodbye, and I hugged myself on the bench as the cars all pulled out, and I was left alone with Mr. Carpenter’s vehicle. It looked dumpy. It looked like the kind of thing a clown might drive, except in real life, after finishing a shift of clown-work.
He crossed the street head-down, hands in his pockets, hair hanging over his forehead.
He was trying to get his key in the door when I said, “Hey, Mr. Carpenter.”
He looked up, and his eyes were glassy. He squinted toward me and said, “Who’s that? Gina?”
“It’s Courtney,” I said. “From school.”
“Courtney?” Just as he said it he wobbled a little bit and reached for the top of his car to hold himself up.
“Hey,” I said, standing. “Yeah. Your student.”
“Were you at the meeting?”
“I screwed up the time,” I said. “I was like an hour and a half late. I only saw the end.”
He squinted. “Did they talk about Krueger?”
“No,” I said.
“No one else from class? No one came later?”
All through this conversation I half-strolled my way toward him.
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I’m a little disappointed at the moment.”
“I know,” I said. “Totally. That sucks.”
“Are you waiting for a ride?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s coming.”
He nodded for a long time with his serious teacher face, as though he were thinking of something he could write on the chalkboard.
“I can drop you,” he said finally.
For the first time since I’d known him, something told me to move away from him, not toward him. But I was nervous, too. I said okay and went around to the passenger door of his clown car and waited for him to unlock it. Keys in the lock, he looked at me over the roof, and I looked back at him, this time meeting his eyes and not looking down or away, like I usually did. I felt like we might be on a date.
“I’ve never seen you anywhere but inside your biology lab,” I said.
“That’s where I spend most of my time.”
“My door’s still locked.”
I don’t know why, but this made him stop rattling his keys. His head was still down and I could see the look on his face for a few seconds. I could see him rubbing his eyes. When he looked up I could see how red his cheeks were.
“Courtney, hey,” he said. “You know what? I had a couple of beers over at that place. I actually don’t think it’s a good idea for me to drive you. It’s probably not a good idea for me to drive at all, actually.” He raised his eyebrows. Responsible again. He was looking at the top of his car.
“Do you live close?”
He breathed once, through his nose, like he was choking back a burp of puke, then looked over his shoulder.
He burped again under his breath.
“Are you okay.”
He burped once more. “How far away?” he said, through the exhale.
He said it still looking over his shoulder, and he sounded like he was in pain.
“I don’t know. Less than a mile.”
“Do you want me to walk you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Okay.”
He walked beside me, hands in his pockets, up on people’s lawns even though I was in the street. We didn’t talk about Krueger. He told me about a book he was trying to write, about wildlife and how it didn’t fit into the human world, how it had been doomed from the moment we evolved past a certain point. The Terminal Line. That’s what he called it. He told me there were some scientists who wanted to bring elephants and lions to America. This amazed me. I imagined them walking down empty highways.
He was talking softly; I could hardly hear him, but I could smell beer and cigarettes and bar smells even though the wind was blowing—it was just oozing off of him. It made me feel like I had been in the bar with him, or that I was a river guide in Idaho, casting about after college, lost like him. He said, after a little speech about the grasslands in the Midwest, out of nowhere, “I actually don’t have many friends anymore,” and laughed. “Which is funny, if you know me.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Teaching is a funny thing,” he said. “In a way it’s the noblest thing to do. But you can also end up in strange places. Like here. In this fucking place. For example.”
“But what about those who can’t do, teach?” I asked, smiling.
“Right,” he said. “Funny girl.”
“You can do, though,” I said. “How come people never say that teaching counts as doing?”
“Excellent question,” he said. “I like that. But I think if you say that then you have to admit that there are different kinds of doing.”
“Okay,” I said. “I admit that.”
“Doing,” he repeated. “This doing question is important.”
“Instead of talking.”
“People hold their anger about things,” he said. “That’s what stalls everything in the modern world. You know?”
“I find it strange to imagine how briefly we’ve been here in terms of the age of the planet. Or just the age of life.”
He looked at me, realized that he was floating away into his own place. He smiled and looked ahead again. “This stuff is a cliché to you. I’m a big cliché, right?”
“No. I completely know what you’re saying.”
“I think I actually might be.”
“What I’m saying is that we’ve barely been here and already we’ve come to a point where we only ever compromise.”
“What about doing, then?”
“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Doing is the opposite of compromise.”
“What about destroying?”
“Haha,” he said. “Funny girl.”
I felt we’d reached a plateau. We kept walking. Eventually he asked me all sorts of questions about my family, and I told him about my parents, and he nodded and said, “That’s hard,” and I said, “Not really,” and he said, “Okay,” but then suddenly the lost moment was back and he was there, right beside me, and his arms were around me, and we were kissing sloppily in the shadows between streetlights. The kiss was wet with alcohol and peanuts — his tongue whipped in tight circles — and I could hear him breathing heavily through his nose, almost grunting, almost a gorilla, trying, maybe, to push me further back, back between the houses, and it was hard not to see him as an animal.
I didn’t let him move me. I might have been stiff at first but after a few seconds of feeling his hands holding onto my ribs underneath my jacket I let myself relax more, even though, as it happened, I felt clear adult sense that it should stop for his sake, not for mine. Like he was maybe even younger than me. Like I was witnessing the real self-destruction of a person. Something I had not, up to that point in my life, understood could actually happen, except in books and movies.
It ended as fast as it started.
He stepped back.
He said, “Oooohkaaayy. I am a pedophile.”
We started walking.
“We shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re a creep,” I said to his back. “Hey, slow down.” I touched his shoulder.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean? Maybe you should turn around.”
“This isn’t normal,” he said. “Is what I’m saying. This is not what I would — it’s this fucking place.” He yelled the last word, and it echoed.
“I’m not going to tell. It’s fine. Whatever.”
We were quiet then. The wind blew a little and we both looked straight ahead and moved again. I told him when to go, a few streets later, just so he wouldn’t have to take me all the way to my door and keep feeling like a pervert.
“How is your father?”
“We’ve been emailing.”
“He’s become very communicative.”
“Fine. Then why did you just ask me how he was?”
“It was last week. He gave me the update. It sounds like things are okay.”
“Yes,” I said. “They are. You are correct.”
“We discussed,” she said, “very briefly, the possibility of everyone getting back together for Thanksgiving.”
I stared at her. “What do you mean by back together?”
“Well, James will be back. We think it might be a good idea to have the family together this first time.”
“To help the transition.”
“From what to what?”
“From being together to not being together.”
“That’s totally weird, Mom. It already happened. And that’s being together. You’re saying you want to be together to help not be together. Don’t you see the problem?”
“It’s just a thought.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a thought. Don’t you see the problem?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t. I see the solution.”
It was a Saturday, November 13th , and it was 69 degrees outside. The sky was perfect. It had been like this for three days, and the people of Farrow had reverted to summertime behavior, strolling in the streets, mowing lawns — I even saw a boy eating melting ice cream. In class, Mr. Carpenter had made comments about carbon and Al Gore, but they felt flip and cynical, not wise, not deliberate, not guided, not teacherly — not containing anything about how it was possible for us to do things and change things, for it to not always be stuck this way. For there to be a chance at reversals. For people to actually use ideas to do something. We hadn’t talked about what had happened, we hadn’t even acknowledged it, but I could feel his attention in class, this new sexual part of him, and I was scared that everybody else could feel it, too. We had moved on to dissecting our fetal pigs; every day Holly and I would haul out our vacuum-sealed bag and we’d lay our pig out on our long tray and take it apart, piece by piece, and try to name everything that we cut out. I lost the pancreas. But I will be honest. Sometimes, in the midst of this cluster of flesh, as he paced around, I would be able to close my eyes and imagine sex. Far more than I had. Clear pictures in my mind.
I looked outside, at the sun and the blue sky. I wanted to be able to love how beautiful it was, but really, according to science, the Earth was dying.
“I’m going for a run,” I told my mother.
“You and running,” my mom said. “What’s going on?”
“It’s an interest,” I said. When I turned back to her I saw that she was now staring out the window, too, but the look in her eyes made it seem like she was not allowed to go through to the other side.
“Do you want to come?” I asked.
“Me? Run?” She shook her head. “I can’t run. I never learned.”
“Everyone can run. You don’t learn it.”
“So you say.”
I had found Mr. Carpenter in the phone book the night he kissed me. Carpenter, S. I had never called him and never gone by his house, but I’d looked it up on the internet and scrolled around and even looked at the satellite pictures, at his blurry roof. He lived in a cul-de-sac three miles away. I had his address written on a tiny piece of blue paper, which I’d tried to fold an infinite amount of times before stuffing into a pair of socks in my drawer.
Since it was so warm outside I got into my summer running clothes, shorts and my sports bra, and I put the tiny paper in my pocket, and I looked in the mirror, proud of my stomach, proud I was not my mother and human and able to run, and to prove the point I blasted down the stairs and out of the back door and through the yard and down the Parsons’ driveway and was three hundred yards from the house before she knew I was gone. I didn’t hate her so much as I hated the idea that I had to play any role in any story — the story of her and my father, the story of how she was old and I wasn’t. The story that made me need my biology teacher for whatever stupid thing I thought he had. It was anger, but I just wanted it to end, too. It would have been easier for him to have never done anything at all. Or to have been married. Or to have been successful. To have somehow been able to better take care of himself. He had just enough imagination to make great failure possible. That was a kind of person, I had realized. I felt like I had diagnosed his problems too well. And I felt that no one else, actually, would be able to see clearly what was wrong with him — that he was passive, that he couldn’t really ever do anything without me. I was what could make him work.
My hair got all kinked and curled after the first mile. I took the longest route I could think of, through all the neighborhoods, away from any of the bigger streets, away from downtown, as though it mattered whether or not I was seen, as though people, when they saw me, would know where I was going and what I planned to do based on gait.
Mr. Carpenter’s cul-de-sac was called Warren Way. I never needed my piece of paper. When I got to the intersection I stopped running and put my hands on my hips to catch my breath. I could see him.
He was outside, in his front yard, talking to a dark-haired guy who looked around the same age, both of them standing beside a pickup truck. Mr. Carpenter’s clown-car was pulled all the way up in front of the garage. I looked down at the ground and breathed hard.
When I looked up he was staring at me.
“Hey,” I said, and half-waved.
There was no way he could hear me from this far away. He motioned and I started walking over, hands still on my hips.
He was shaking the dark-haired guy’s hand when I got to the driveway. I heard the guy say, “Okay, peace, my friend,” before he turned. He nodded at me and got into the truck.
“Courtney,” Mr. Carpenter said, watching his friend reverse away. Finally he turned to me, once the truck had left the driveway. “Running?”
“Not right now.”
“I can’t believe how hot it is,” I said. I thought maybe he would say something about the greenhouse effect.
He just said, “Yeah,” and put his hands in his pockets.
“Who was that guy?” I asked.
“He said ‘Peace, my friend.’”
“Yes he did.”
“I thought you didn’t have any friends.”
“You told me that.”
“Right,” he said.
“No, I know,” I said. “No one has no friends.”
“I think I said many.”
“No. You said any.”
This made him look at me and raise his eyebrows. He looked skinny, and I almost said, “Have you been eating?”
“So you want some water?” he asked. “You look like you just jumped in a lake.”
“I sweat a lot,” I said.
“I’ll get you some water.”
He walked up the stairs to his front porch and I followed him in without asking. He looked over his shoulder when he heard my footsteps, but he didn’t say anything, he just kept going. His house looked just like I would have expected it to look; in the living room there was a big wooden table with a hundred books on it and a laptop crammed into the one open spot. There were chairs here and there, but they didn’t look very well-used. I heard jam-band music. I smelled pot and kitty litter. There was no TV.
“I rent,” he said, continuing on into the kitchen. “Hey, why don’t you just wait out on the porch? You want any food or anything? I have some, ah, squid.”
“No,” I said. “I’m running.”
He disappeared into the other room. Outside I sat down on the porch-swing; I finally had stopped breathing hard. I leaned back and let myself sway, just a little. I could see a bucket full of suds and a sponge next to his car. I thought it was funny that he did everyday things.
“What’s all that stuff on your table?” I asked him, when he came back out and sat down. He was a few feet from me, on a plastic chair. “Is that for your book?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Kind of. More Krueger stuff.”
“Krueger’s in your book?”
“Kind of. I’ve been trying to interview people out there. Call it a summer project.”
“The Terminus,” I said. “The Terminal Line.”
I thought he’d tell me more about it then, but he didn’t say anything else.
“I’m so excited for the semester to be over,” I said.
He leaned forward, put his elbow on his armrest and his hand on his chin and mouth. “Listen. Don’t take this the wrong way, but can I ask you something?”
“Why are you here?”
If I took every moment he had looked at me and spoken to me directly, I would not have been able to find one when he looked so adult. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, but I could see the little signs; I could see that he had the beginning of pits under his eyes, I could see that one day, maybe in twenty years, his legs would become spindly and hairless, and that they would awkwardly support the gut that he would grow. He would have two children and would care about his pension, and how the teacher’s union had made poor decisions regarding his 401(k). He would sometimes look sadly at the cobwebby kayak that was up in the rafters of his garage.
“Don’t you want me to be?” I said.
He leaned back in his chair.
“We kissed,” I said. “You kissed me. Anyway, I’m saying hi and drinking water. I’m a person. Hi.”
“That is not fair.”
“To drink water?”
“Yes, I kissed you,” he said. “Okay. I did.”
“So maybe you did it for no reason at all.”
“That’s not true, either. I didn’t. Don’t think that.”
I shrugged. “I don’t.”
“Don’t think it’s more, either,” he said.
“I was running,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”
“You happened to run right to my house?”
“I run all over the place.”
“Okay. But we need to talk about what happened. After the Community Center. That’s something that really — it needs to be addressed. I had been drinking. Okay. I was out of line. The power differentials—”
“I was just addressing it. I think it’s fine. I don’t think it was out of line. I don’t think you’re a bad person.”
“I have more to say,” he said. “What I did was—”
“Can I ask you a question?”
It didn’t look like he wanted me asking the questions. He wanted to do some long Socratic dialogue on me and show me that he was a moral, adult person, and that I wasn’t.
“Are you going to be a teacher?” I asked. “The whole time? For your whole career?”
He snorted, then smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Why?”
“Sometimes it seems like you love it,” I said. “Then sometimes it seems like you really hate us all.”
“Hate you all?” he said, frowning at me. He shook his head. “That’s absolutely not true. Why would you say that?”
“Or like you wish you were us?”
He just stared.
“Just things you say. When you make fun of us for, like, caring about our futures. Why?”
“I want you to be doing it for the right reason. There are so many ways to get pull—”
“I think we are. Or if we aren’t, I don’t think you know.”
“Look,” he said. “There are other things going on.”
“So you being here is not okay,” he said. He stared at me for a second, then looked across the street, at his neighbor’s house, and then back at his own door. “Fuck, man. A girl from my class is not okay. That’s what I mean.”
“Courtney,” I said. “My name’s Courtney.”
“This town,” he said.
“It’s not the town,” I said.
He needed it to be done — I could see the failure already and I had to at least make it real, to make all the ideas exist. There was nothing else to say. I set down my glass and I went in through the door and down the hall and into the bathroom I had seen when he got me the water. It was messy, and small. There was a shag bathmat on the tiled floor and a pile of clothes in the corner, next to the toilet. None of it resembled what I’d pictured. I closed the door.
“Courtney,” I heard him say from in the hall. “Please get out of there.”
“I’m taking a shower,” I said.
I took off my clothes and started the water and was under it with my eyes closed before I could think of my dad, or my mom, or my brother James, or how I wasn’t the person who could be here, or the person who had made this. The tiles were coated in mildew and grime. I imagined a picture of myself in the newspaper, looking young. It didn’t matter, I didn’t care if he came in. I knew he wouldn’t. It wasn’t even for him — it had nothing to do with him at all.
I showered there, alone, for fifteen minutes. He was gone — he had fled — when I came outside. His car was gone. I walked halfway home, where my mother was probably still sitting in the same spot in the kitchen, before I started to run.
Class got sad. There was no other way to say it, or to feel it. When he lectured he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Once he showed up to the lab with a black eye and told us that he’d stood up at a bar and challenged every man there to a one-round boxing match. One week he spent three days showing us the movie ‘Grizzly Man’ and asked us to think about what it meant in terms of what we’d learned in class. He fell asleep partway in. I fell asleep. A few days later he ended class thirty minutes early and said, “I love you all as friends,” and laughed to himself and walked out the door. The next Monday, the week before winter break, he wasn’t there.
“Mr. Carpenter had a family emergency and will not be back until after the holidays,” said Mr. Robinson, the other biology teacher. He had a beard and a stain on his forehead. “We’ll review for your final. Who can tell me something snappy about ATP?”
“This sucks,” Holly said. “What do you think happened to my husband Shaun Carpenter?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he disappeared into the wild.”
“Did it seem kinda like he was going crazy?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
We took our finals with Mr. Robinson standing over us, pacing the aisles. I think I got a C. It was cold again, like it was supposed to be, and on that Friday I walked home through the snow, to my mom’s house. I made a sandwich and she came in from the living room and sat down and said, “Your father and I have decided to get back together. It’s official!”
I kept eating my sandwich.
“That’s really good for you,” I said, after a moment. “What happened to the bathtub?”
I swallowed my bread. “The bathtub you told me about,” I said.
“I don’t follow.”
“When we were driving to Chicago.”
“You said the water cools off. You explained this huge definition of love. You also used snow.”
“Oh,” she said. “That.”
“You told me that love dies.”
“Did I say that?”
“Something about this going away,” she said, shaking her head. “I mean he was only down the road, for goodness sake. We worked out many of our difficulties. We needed a break. You wouldn’t — I don’t think you could understand.”
She laughed to herself, and I could tell that she was far away. She looked at me — I just stared—and she flapped a hand to shoo my irritating skepticism.
“It’s reminded us, I think,” she said. “That’s all.”
I didn’t change my look. It no longer felt natural to abide my mother’s lies, regardless of whether or not she had the energy to perform them.
On Christmas Eve, I was in my dad’s apartment, wearing my favorite brown dress, which was now too short for me — it was as though I was not going to stop growing, ever, and I would be like Alice, shooting up so high that I’d eventually blast through the roof — sitting on his couch, watching the big black TV that would soon be moving home, too. I was helping him get a few more boxes of things, and I could hear him humming “Jingle Bells” in the other room; James and Mom were at the house, waiting for us, but I hadn’t seen James yet. I was excited to hug him. Of course there would be a glazed ham. Grandma and Grandpa were coming to town, and my dad’s brother Stew had flown in from Cleveland for the first time in five years. The family was bonding. The lights were all up and the snow had started at noon. It was freezing.
We loaded up the car in two trips. At the trunk I watched him go back to lock up; I felt the cold against my tights and looked down at my shoes, which were too nice to be here with the exhaust-stained ice. I had always thought there was something unusual, but good, about being dressed up out in the dark cold. I was fancy here alongside the elements and my makeup wanted to freeze into a mask on my face.
When we were driving Dad said, “This might be the end for you and that dress.” He was looking right at my thighs.
I looked down. Strong but at peace in my black tights, I saw. They looked good. But what I thought was: It must be hard for fathers to see their daughters having passed some Terminal Line of their own.
I pulled at my hem. “This will be fun,” I said.
He said nothing.
I looked up. “Won’t it? Family Part Two?”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Courtney,” he said. “Sarcasm is a small thing for small people.” When I didn’t respond he said, a little softer, “Just please not tonight. Christmas and your mother and everything else.”
“No,” I said, seeing I had hurt his feelings, or at least reminded him of something that did. “I really do think it’ll be fun.” I tried to make it sound real. “James is here, too.”
After a pause he said, “You never know what’s going to happen with your Uncle Stew around.”
“I know,” I said. “Stew’s bananas.”
The snow was fat, the kind that might be good to build a snowman or a fort, and I guessed that later we would see the colored puffballs of children in snowmobile suits working savagely at the new landscape, driven to make all thought-up places real, terraforming for their lives. My dad was squinting at the road and driving slow. I didn’t want to distract him anymore. Besides, what question could I ask? Father, does tepid bathwater eventually become stagnant and unsafe, as we might hypothesize, following a period of conjecture? Father, do you want to be in this car, going in this direction? With me? And if so, will you always love me? Because I am now not so sure, and nor am I a girl. And Father, at what point, precisely, can we recognize a failed life? (I see yours.) And what can we do once we see it? (Little.) These thoughts went through my mind, for real, as I was the empiricist here, but I sensed the wrong word might shatter him. I stayed quiet. I watched the road and tried to help look out for ice or other spots of danger, knowing he was prone to his own kinds of distraction, which was an unscientific and meddlesome thing to do, I know, but I did it. Because the plows hadn’t been through, which left ruts you had to follow, but they could hurt you. Where was Shaun Carpenter? I wondered it right then.
“I haven’t driven in anything like this,” I said.
“You haven’t had much chance,” he said. “This is your first winter driving.”
I agreed. Based on the math of the birthdays, it was true.
He nodded brusquely, kept his eyes on the oncoming cars, happy now we were onto a certain topic. “Well,” he said. “Give it time. You’ll learn.”
I was glad he said it, but there was sadness to it all. He may as well have said goodbye, then, too.