Above The Factory

By Jerry Gabriel

When they moved from out West, they decided on a place far outside of the city, near a small town. It was just a hamlet, really, this town. A sign at the edge of it said, “Annecy, Ohio” and then below that, “Population: 800.” It wasn’t even on one of the maps they had of the state.

This is what they wanted, they discovered, after long discussions about it, after making lists of their wants and needs and reading about the area in two guidebooks from their branch library.

Annecy had been the site of some important peace talks with the region’s Indians in the 18th century. There were two different monuments in town marking the event: one at the sandstone town gates — a small plaque nestled there among some unruly junipers — the other on the side of a 200 year-old building, once the home of a state senator, that was now occupied by a microbrewery. The town had later been the birthplace of a small but important 19th- century publishing house, which was now more or less defunct, though people recognized its name still. The town name itself had come from a group of French Huguenots who had spread north from a busted land deal on the Ohio River.

Somewhat fortuitously, the town was named after the wondrous French town at the foot of the Alps where they’d once vacationed on an extended junket from Geneva, all on the tab of Charles’ architecture firm. Of course this made the town and the farmhouse nearby all that much more appealing on an emotional level and affected their decision more than either of them would have liked to admit.

Charles would drive to C— for work, they planned; it was only about 45 minutes. They would plant a garden. They would get some chickens. Sharon could use a small out-building on the grounds — after they did a little work on it — for a studio in which she could get back to throwing pots. “La Vie Simple,” Charles said.

“I love it when you speak French,” Sharon said, kissing from his hand to his shoulder.    

So they would get out of the rat race and, hopefully, a year down the road, they would have a little boy or girl — they both professed utter indifference at which, though Charles in point of fact secretly wanted a boy; he assumed Sharon secretly wanted a girl.

They didn’t exactly buy sight-unseen, but it was a quick weekend visit and they were so taken by the little village with its square and gazebo and the river running through its center, with the charm of the bookstore along Main Street overstocked with excellent books on everything from coffees of the world to organic pest control. It was, to be sure, everything their bustling, sprawling, anonymous Western metropolis was not. The barbershop just off the square had been doing business uninterrupted since the Great War, a sign on the side of the building informed them. During the Great War, Charles noted to Sharon, their city had been a wide spot in an arroyo, not more than a couple thousand people squatting in the heat and praying for rain.

And so they swept through the house at the showing and didn’t pay much attention to the details. They missed, among other problems, the badly caulked bathroom and the fact that the roof leaked in the garage, right onto the workbench area, where Charles was supposed to build some custom bookshelves for the nook in the hallway. They missed the fact that all of the upstairs was on one 110 V circuit breaker and when one thing blew, the entire floor followed.

These were the types of things missed by young couples buying their first real home — they had owned a condo out West, but that hardly counted. They were things, too, you could compensate for. It was not hard, with a little know-how — even with a borrowed library book on the subject — to re-caulk a tub. For that matter, it would be easy on Charles’ salary at Finissons Inc., the firm in C— he’d landed the team leader job with, to call up a roofer and have him come out and do something about the garage.

The thing that was less clear how to handle was the factory in the basement.

They were at a loss for how exactly they’d missed this during the visit and in the paperwork. But they most certainly had — the result, apparently, of the distraction brought on by a major purchase. Or perhaps just the exuberance of youth. Or maybe Charles and Sharon were just not as detail oriented as they thought they were.

Whatever the reason for the oversight, there was indeed a factory in the basement, and this fact had simply and inexplicably slipped past their radar. And the fact that they had arrived on a Saturday—by car, after a four day trip across the high desert and through the panhandle of Texas and the Ozarks and then one long day from there—prolonged the ignorance until Monday morning. That was when the employees of the factory started showing up for work.

Sharon was running the shower that first morning — it was October, getting cooler, the exquisite Midwestern dawn coolness between the dog days and the grey, blowing chill of November — when the gravel lot to the west side of the house began to fill with cars. They’d had, in fact, a conversation about the size of the lot — it seemed awfully big — but the conversation had been changed for some reason — perhaps it had been to discuss what furniture to put into the solarium — and the subject forgotten, another clue missed.

The workers entered the basement through the backdoor, which led to a landing from which you could take three steps up into the kitchen or descend on down into the basement. Sharon watched from the small window above the toilet in the master bathroom on the second floor as the first of them made his way to the house from the driveway. She called out to Charles that there was someone at the door. Charles, though, was still sleeping—in the middle of dream, actually, about an ultra-light flight between C— and Chicago. He reckoned in the netherlogic of his sleep that the flight would break the unassisted ultra-light distance record. In point of fact, he didn’t in his waking life own an ultra-light, nor had he ever flown in anything without at least two and preferably four jet engines each providing for at least 4,000 pounds of thrust per second. Also, the distance between the two cities was four times what an ultra-light could legitimately fly. But it was the kind of hobby he imagined to be popular here, and one suitable for his sense of adventure, and anyway, it was his dream and did not belong to reality or to what was possible.

Sharon — they’d been married just three years and had dated, sometimes on, though mostly off, for nearly six years before that; he actually still called her father Mr. Keller— now standing under the ample stream of a Midwestern shower head (none of these low-flow jobs were necessary here where the rivers were all bloated) she was calling to him, dragging him from the heroic landing at Meigs Field, where many Chicagoans—colleagues, he figured, from firms in the Windy City — had come out to greet him.

He lay in the bed for a long moment, just lay there, allowing the real world to seep into his senses, his consciousness.

“Charles,” she said again.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I think there’s someone downstairs at the door.”

He closed his eyes, not really awake, still really with one foot in the dream, recalling that there’d been a stiff southwesterly wind coming off Lake Michigan, making his approach tricky. He smiled at the preposterousness of it. He didn’t know anything about wind shear.

He got up and made his way downstairs. There was nobody at the door, though there was someone messing around in the basement — he could hear clangs of metal on metal, which, in his groggy state, he took to be Sharon messing with the washing machine, never mind that she’d been in the shower upstairs, had in fact been the one to ask him to go down and check the door in the first place. Never mind that the washer and dryer were conveniently located in a hutch just off the kitchen, which had been another thing they’d both really liked about the place.

He made his way back upstairs and found her in the bathroom, and stood there confused for a very long moment.

“Who was it?” she asked, and then the fog started to lift a little. He made it back downstairs in time to meet a second employee coming through the door. A middle aged woman was taking off her jacket in the small mudroom.

“Who are you?” he asked. Charles was wearing his pajamas, which were covered with dozens of the orange-and-blue logos of the pro basketball team of their old town. Their new town — the city forty-five minutes distant where Charles would be working — had no basketball team, but did now have a new hockey team, which meant that Charles would probably have to learn the rules of that sport, as he had with basketball in his first year of his old job. Though to be fair, he’d come to love the game of basketball and had checked with the office manager every game day to see if the corporate tickets had been claimed.

“Edith,” she said.

“What do you think you’re doing, Edith?”

She screwed up her eyes at him, as if she were measuring whether or not he were pulling her leg. Finally she seemed to decide he was not.

“I’m not even close to being late, mister,” she said.

He stared at her in utter confusion. She disappeared down the stairs. The door opened again and a large man came in, a couple stray leaves blowing in behind him. Charles looked down at his own New Zealand sheepskin slippers. He’d bought them for himself at the Auckland airport on the way back from some business in Brisbane.

“Morning,” the man said.

“Morning,” Charles said. He would take a new approach, he figured. When the man went down the stairs, Charles followed him. Halfway down, the man turned. “Um, you can’t be down here like that,” he said. “OSHA’d be on us like flies on stink.”

Charles nodded, even more confused. OSHA? he thought, but did not say.

“Steel-toed boots,” the man said, seeing that something wasn’t registering for Charles. “No loose clothing. Lookit. You’re wearing your kids’ jammies or something.”

Charles went all the way back upstairs and started digging in one of the unpacked boxes in the office that read “lawn darts — backpack — softball glove — hats — boots — porn.”  His friend Kent, who’d helped him pack, had added “porn” to the list while he was helping them box things up. What a freaking comedian, Charles was thinking, now more or less awake.

Inside the box, he found the boots he’d worn at a summer job years before — work boots, but hardly used. He sat on the bed and put them on. Sharon was dressed now.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I don’t really know,” he said. “But it seems like there’s a party or something going on in the basement.”

“What do you mean?”

He looked up at her. “I’ll tell you in a minute.”

In the basement, he found several discrete rooms of industrial machines whose purpose might have been anything from molding plastic silverware trays to forging bolts or bombshell casings. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He didn’t remember any of this stuff being here in the walk-through. But in truth, he didn’t remember much about the walk-through. He couldn’t believe it. There was a goddamn factory in his basement.

The employees were congregated in a small break room, smoking and drinking coffee. Smoking? Nobody had asked him if they could smoke. Sharon could very well be pregnant any minute. He nearly said something about that, but then the employees seemed to become aware of his presence. One of them, the foreman apparently, came forward.

“You shouldn’t be down here, Mister…”

He trailed off as if he had known Charles’ name but had forgotten it.

“It’s Mr. Dawson,” Charles said. “Charles Dawson.”

“Mr. Dawson,” the man finished. “We agreed with Mr. Pollock that he wouldn’t bother us and we wouldn’t bother him.”

Pollock, Charles remembered from the paper work, was the man who’d sold them the house.

“I’m not Mr. Pollock,” Charles heard himself say. He was looking around the room. “What’s going on here?”

“Look, Mr. Dawson,” the man said.

“Call me Charles,” Charles said.

The man exhaled, frustrated, apparently tired. Probably he’d been up late, knocking back long necks at one of those windowless places along Raccoon Road, Charles caught himself thinking.

“Charles,” the man continued, “we’ve got quotas to fill — a shipment to go out this afternoon, actually.”  Here he looked at his watch and then turned to the employees who had continued talking, though they were obviously also eavesdropping. “Okay, folks. Time to get on the ball,” he said to them. “These orders aren’t going to fill themselves.”

“What’s your name?” Charles asked the man.

“Kendrick Hampton,” he said.

“And what, Mr. Hampton, do you make here?”

“Look, Charles,” he began. You could see that he didn’t feel quite comfortable with the familiar address. “I’m sorry. I just don’t have time to chat. I assume Mrs. Holtz will be in touch with you regarding some recent purchases. You two can sit down and hash out all the details.”

“There are no details,” Charles insisted. “You can’t make things in my basement.”

“There are always details,” Hampton said profoundly. With this, he turned and boarded a small electric forklift that Charles had also failed to notice, and took off with a load of medium sized cardboard boxes on its front, a tiny beeping noise marking his path. Charles thought he could see Korean or Chinese characters across the front of each of them.

Part Two

At breakfast, Charles and Sharon discussed the matter. They called the real estate agent who confirmed that, now that they mentioned it, there was a small factory on the grounds — she’d had so many properties coming and going lately — and would that be a problem?

“Yes,” said Charles, as calmly as he could muster. He was practiced at phone manners from six years of dealing with clients — some of them on occasion irate at how far over-estimate his firm had come in or at how windows the firm had argued for were hard to slide shut. “It will be a problem. It is, actually, a problem.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “It seems like a good second income to me.”

“You mean this is our factory?” he said.

“Of course,” said the agent. “Whose else would it be?”

He told Sharon this last bit of news, holding the phone to his chest. The expression on her face changed some.

“In our basement?” he said into the phone again.

“You could build a pole barn for it, I suppose, or move it off the lot entirely,” the agent said. “But the basement is the current location. And a pole barn doesn’t hold heat well in winter time. Another location would be costly, of course. The move alone would put a big dent into the earnings of a company that size.”

*   *   *

After some oatmeal and two cups of coffee, Charles got ready for his first day at Finnisons Inc., and then drove through the bucolic countryside to the city. It was all new to him, and he drank in the sights, the farms and small towns and little vegetable and pottery stands.

His first day was filled with introductions and meetings and a long lunch in a restaurant forty-five floors above the city, from which he could see the flatlands stretching out in all directions like the sea itself, filled with crowded suburbs that had, he knew, good high schools and excellent department stores, but were too close to the city for Charles and Sharon. Let everyone else deal with the inconveniences of wall-to-wall people, he thought. He was tired of sprawl; he’d lived his whole life in it and around it, and he was done. He felt a sort of rightness inside at their choice to live out, away from all of it, in their revolutionary-era village.

Though the basement factory was never far from his mind, he was able to let himself take in his new life, meet people, talk to them about their work and interests. Whatever the deal with the basement was, they’d get it settled. He thought of Sharon at home, unpacking, a powerful love inside him. He was happy, he realized.

When he returned home that evening, the driveway — he might as well go ahead and call it a parking lot — was empty. Sharon, who had been unpacking most of the day, said the workers had left at 3:30. Charles took off his tie and opened a couple of beers and the two of them went downstairs and snooped around the factory. 

Even upon closer inspection, they couldn’t really figure out what was produced here. They found a desk in a corner that appeared to act as the foreman’s office. On it were hardware manuals and shipping schedules. The goods, whatever they were, were apparently sent all over the Americas — one invoice said San Juan, Puerto Rico, another Guadalajara — and small allotments seemed to be on their way to Austria, Japan and even Madagascar.

“This is very strange,” Sharon said.

“Isn’t it?” he said.

“Like something out of a story.”

He shook his head. “It’s really weird.”

“I never really wanted to be in a story,” Sharon said. “For the same reason I didn’t want to be Damn Yankees in high school.”

Later, they went to have dinner at a small German restaurant in the village. It turned out that the ownership had changed recently and the restaurant now specialized in American cuisine, and so Charles had meatloaf and scalloped potatoes; Sharon had some fried chicken. They talked about their new home and marveled that one could live in a country big enough to live thirty-four hours east of your old home. They skirted the topic of the factory as much as possible. Charles knew it was something they needed to deal with, to square, but it was so much more pleasant to talk about other things, to focus on their new life and feel the joy at having escaped something.

Each day that week, the workers arrived at seven sharp and disappeared into the basement. The house had apparently been well sound-proofed, and Sharon was able to go about her business of getting the house into shape without much notice of the six people in the basement. And at night, Charles and Sharon would go down to the basement with beers from the microbrewery in town and they would stroll around the place as if they were inspecting a garden they had planted and were now expectantly awaiting the fruits of.

*   *   *

Early the next week, Charles returned home from work in the afternoon a little early and searched the house for Sharon. She had been unpacking the house little by little and had so far been able to get most of the downstairs set up. Dozens of cardboard boxes were broken down into bundles out on the porch, wrapped in bands of twine. Charles was to be responsible for taking them to the recycling center in the county seat, he knew.

He walked around the first floor of the house, looking for her. It was tidy, he noticed. He loved the old wooden floors of the place. They were nicked and scratched in just the right way. Oak, he thought, or figured. Maybe maple, now that he thought of it. Now, in fact, that he thought of it, he had no idea how to tell the difference and he made a mental note to ask someone who might know. It would be something worth knowing.

He found Sharon upstairs in the room that he knew they both thought of as the future nursery, but were both outwardly calling the library. There was a third bedroom upstairs — besides this one and the master bedroom they were sleeping in — where the books could be shoved if a baby were to arrive, but in the meantime, it was a psychological hedge to not talk about this room as the nursery, a way of not jinxing their attempts at pregnancy. They had read that the more couples fixated on the topic—the more they talked about it and planned for it, bought things, painted things—the harder it became to actually conceive. It was a weird phenomenon, and a strange psychological conundrum. The same was true of a lot of other physiological things, too, if you thought about it. If you could legitimately distract yourself, for instance, from the old rotator cuff pain — if you could actually not think of it — then, in essence, it ceased to exist.

Sharon was sitting on the floor, reading, with a pillow behind her back. She looked redolent in the afternoon light, he thought, her long auburn hair with just a touch of curl to it, her strong chin, her upright posture, even there on the floor.

“Hey baby,” he said.

She didn’t look up immediately and he came on into the room.

“Sweetheart?”

“Oh,” she said, pulled from her trance. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“What d’you got there, a crime story or something?”

She held up a worn paperback. It had the look of a classic, even from across the room. “No,” she said. “Das Kapital. Have you read this?”

Das Kapital?” Charles said. “That’s sounds boring. Philosophy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Dummy. It’s Karl Marx.”

“Oh, that. In English, we just say Capital. Das is German for something or other.”

“It means “the,” she said.

“Why are you reading that? It sounds dreadful. I think I was supposed to read that for a political theory class.”

“I just came across it in one of these boxes. I don’t know. It just caught my eye.”

“How long ago did that happen?”

“I don’t know. A while. I just opened it up and looked at it for a while.”

“I can think of better ways to spend an afternoon. You know there’s a state park not three miles from here.”

“It’s a reservoir.”

“Still. There are hiking trails.”

“Well. There are trails. Hiking is probably a stretch.”

“Or the farmer’s market in town. This weekend, I’m going to clear out the shed so you can get set up in there.”

“Why can’t I sit here and read?”

“You can do anything you like, sweetheart. But sitting around reading Karl Marx seems…” He searched for a word that wouldn’t offend her, but couldn’t think of one, so instead, he changed tactics. “You know that Marx was supported by what’s his name’s dad, who had a factory of his own.”

“Yeah, I know. Engels,” she said. “And that doesn’t disprove anything they had to say.”

“Maybe not. But it certainly makes it suspect.”

“Listen to yourself,” she said.

“Did you not see the video footage of the Berlin Wall getting dismantled? Or that guy — what was his name? — the kingpin guy in Romania — getting shot? They have McDonald’s in Red Square now.”

“I think you’re missing the point, Charles. These guys had no way of knowing that Stalin would come along.”

“Okay. But Cher, we’re not really industrialists. We’re just middle-class Americans. This means of production business seems to be intended for a much larger scale of operation. Like General Motors.”

“These are all just rationalization,” she said.

“Let’s get some dinner,” Charles said. “Decompress a little. I’m starving.”

Sharon was nothing if not rational, reasonable, Charles knew.

“Okay,” she said. “Yeah, I’m pretty hungry. I guess I missed lunch.”

“You’ve been here since before lunch?”

“I guess.”

“Well. Okay. Let’s head ‘em up and move ‘em out. And give me that.”

She handed him the book.

“You can’t control what I read,” she said.

“I know. I’m not. I’m just holding this for a short time-out.”

She rolled her eyes at him, but they descended the stairs. As she was getting ready in the downstairs bathroom, Charles saw a note on the kitchen table, a phone message. “Who’s Margaret Holtz?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said from the bathroom. “I forgot to tell you. Margaret Holtz is the accountant that the old owners of the house used. Anyway, she’s the one with the lowdown.”

“What did she say?”

 “Nothing. Her secretary said that she would come out and talk with us. I set it up for Saturday.”

“Saturday? We were supposed to go to the Amish Country.”

“Sorry. It was the only time she could do it.”

“Okay,” Charles said. “Saturday.”

“Ready?” she said, appearing in the hallway.

“You look great,” he said.

“I know,” she joked. And then, “I mean, Thanks. How was your day at the office?”

Before he could answer, Sharon said, “What did I just say?”

“It’s okay, June,” he said. He almost made a joke about the Wally and Beaver, but then thought better of it.

Part Three

Margaret Holtz was on the cusp of elderly, though she was still sharp in what Sharon told Charles later she thought of as a Midwestern way, snapping wry witticisms about the weather and state politics, the latter of which was lost on them. In truth, they hadn’t followed politics in their own state, either.

They met in the Dawson’s kitchen on Saturday morning and she pulled out a squeeze-box file system and strew about paper work all over the table. Charles and Sharon swam in the information. There were invoices and quarterly tax forms and letters from lubricant distributors. Neither of them had run a business or even knew anyone who had, but they both had a mind for the task, and they quickly made some order out of buying and selling, shipping and receiving.

Gradually, they got a picture of the financial situation of their factory. It was not bad. They made some sort of part that fit onto some other part of an apparatus that went into metal detectors. Metal detectors were doing pretty well recently, since everyone seemed to believe they should be allowed to have a gun, and kids were taking them into schools and shooting other kids and some teachers. To say nothing of what crazed terrorist were trying to take on planes. Metal detectors seemed like a pretty good thing to be making, morally speaking.

The company was called Ptolemy Industries. Charles really liked the sound of it; he’d always been strangely fascinated with silent letters, he told Sharon.

“Wasn’t Ptolemy the one with the idea that everything revolved around the earth?” Sharon asked Charles later, after Mrs. Holtz left.

“Like you’ve never thought anything at least that crazy,” he said. “And probably it was what everybody thought; he just got the blame pinned on him by the half-baked research of later historians.”

She’d shrugged. Charles’ argumentation style frequently veered toward plausible exaggeration, which he knew frustrated Sharon.

“But who runs the company?” Sharon thought to ask Mrs. Holtz during the meeting. “I mean, doesn’t a company need a business office?”

Mrs. Holtz shrugged. “A company like this, not really. The contracts are through this metal detector company. There’s no need for advertising or public relations. It’s all pretty much residual from some guy, the founder, fifteen years ago. His name was Plank. Anyway, it pretty much runs itself. Kendrick does the shipping and receiving and he passes all the invoices to me once a week. I pay the employees and myself. And you.”

That afternoon, they watched some television — the state university’s football team was playing and Charles felt like it would be smart to have seen the game — and they ate some popcorn, but they were feeling fairly keyed up about this whole factory business. It was so absurd on one level; yet, already it was becoming a sort of natural thing, a bizarre fact of being alive not terribly different from other such equally bizarre facts, like having one’s teeth cleaned or worshipping a god or drinking whiskey until one can no longer stand up. Being alive was itself a bizarre business, he reasoned, and as rational as we attempted to be, we participated in all sorts of strange customs and behaviors. Owning a factory — even living above one — was no more or less strange than the next thing on the list. “You know,” Sharon said. “I saw on a documentary once that Thomas Jefferson had a nail factory at Monticello.”

“He did not,” Charles said.

“It’s what they said on the documentary. I don’t know. They can’t just make that stuff up.”

“Wow,” Charles. “See. Right there. Thomas Jefferson. You don’t get more high-minded than that guy. We had to read a part of Notes on Virginia in a history class in college. Amazing stuff. A founding goddamn father.”           

*   *   *

A week or two passed uneventfully, and then, one evening when Sharon was at a yoga class just outside the city, Charles got bored with TV and pulled out the copies of the statements Mrs. Holtz had left them with. He put them all out on the kitchen table again and pulled out his laptop and created a spreadsheet of his own and made some projections, based on the company’s past performance and on some optimization of it; he funneled some money into an account for exploring other markets for their products.

A few hours later, he had printed out a number of scenarios. When Sharon walked in carrying a bag of groceries from the expensive organic grocer near the yoga studio, he told her that he thought it possible that he might be able to leave his job at Finnisons in a couple years — if they were able to cut back on some of the extravagances of their lives, like buying organic produce (here he took a quick glance at the cloth bag on the counter) and French syrahs and bottled water. They could drink Australian Shirazes and risk the toxins of grocery produce and well water with the rest of the world. They’d have to do things like buy low octane gas and change their own oil. And there would be less trips abroad — there would be no company junkets, obviously — and there would be even less trips on this continent — not the ones they’d been talking about taking to Glacier National Park or to Banff or to Mardi Gras. At least for a while.

But if they did these things, Charles could probably start working as a consultant — at least at first — and then eventually, he could go back to pursuing his art. Charles had shown great promise in his senior show years before, a series of images of cacti-like people with startling human expressions of anger and contempt and joy; that was before he had graduated and worked at a coffee house for a miserable year before going back to do a Masters in architecture.

“I would love that,” Sharon said, clearly excited by the thought of having Charles around, and even though the money would be tight, they could take trips in the country, get to know their neighbors, find a tavern to play softball for. She’d only ever played softball in junior high gym class, but she thought she’d like it.

“Charles,” she said later. “Do you think I would make a good shortstop?”

He looked at her with a grin. “You’re an athletic sort, sugar. You’ve got to be an athletic sort at shortstop, but you are, so, yes, I think you could do it. Do you mean in the majors?”

“No, jerk,” she said. “For our bar, for Folsom Plains Brewery. I want to play shortstop for our bar.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “I bet they need a sexy redhead over at short. Yes.”   

*   *   *

Because of this new perception of their future, Charles grew ebullient at his job. So much so that some of his new co-workers noticed. Nobody they knew had ever been so happy to land in the Midwest — particularly coming from the appealing western state he had left. And so they talked about him outside in the small piazza where Finissons had brought in a university professor’s monumental sculptures of enormous fish having sex. These fish still caught the eye of passersby on their way to the nearby market, though the employees of Finissons had long ago grown inured to the provocation. They simply snuck cigarettes out there on long, marble benches and enjoyed the sun when it showed itself, and now, they talked about the new guy, Charles Dawson.

A man named Roger Brass made the bold proclamation that he was going to investigate the matter. “No one walks around this job with so much happiness in his heart,” he proclaimed. He said it grandly, facetiously, but everyone there could hear a hint of seriousness in his voice and could see that he meant it a little. And the truth, Roger Brass knew, was that he did mean it a little.

Over the following weeks, Brass in fact developed a strong interest in the new guy. He had been at Finissons as an architect first and eventually as a project manager for what seemed to him a long time — eight years, in actual fact — and he felt he had a pretty good handle on the psychology of the place and the people in it. He felt quite confident with his understanding of this world. He knew that there were people in other walks of life whom he understood no better than he understood Beowulf. But his office — floors one, two and three of the Martin-Ellis Building in downtown C—, he was pretty sure he had a firm handle on that.

And so his fascination and curiosity with Dawson, at first idle and relatively harmless, grew, slipping gradually toward — eventually; there were weeks and months involved — something closer to, in the words of Bill Cray in marketing, a fanaticism. He would report to people from the office through short emails or out on the piazza at lunch, or after work at the IRA, the pub on Waters Street next to Finissons where many of the firm’s employees not yet engaged at home with families and children, sat around after work and drank Malbecs and single malt Scotch and thick dark Irish beers and bitched about the decisions of corporate — the firm was actually based in Minneapolis — and also, usually, about the hockey team.

This Dawson fellow was a mystery, and if fanaticism is too strong a word to describe what eventually took hold of Brass’ mind, it is only barely so. Roger Brass knew people could be truly happy, that people were capable of such a thing. He’d known happiness in his own life, and he was no scrooge; nor was he a misanthrope, despite what one ex-girlfriend, Tara Kelch, had said; he didn’t wish unhappiness on others. But the truth, the bottom line, was that he didn’t really know many happy people. And this Charles Dawson seemed to be one. Who wouldn’t want to understand that?

Charlotte Colson, a technical writer with the firm, whom Roger had known for most of his tenure there and with whom he’d once had an awkward date that had ended with the two of them making out parked in the lot of her apartment building — an event they both had pretended had never happened the next day — told him in so many words to put a lid on it. “Sometimes,” she said, “people are just happy. They just are, Roger.” She pronounced “Roger” as if it were “shithead.” 

“Don’t mess with it,” she said.

For Roger Brass, though, this was no kind of explanation.

“Char,” he told her, exhaling one of her Menthols outside of the IRA — you could no longer smoke inside the IRA, which was absurd, though not as absurd as the fact, Roger had heard, that you could no longer smoke in pubs in Ireland itself. “You know and I know,” he said, slurring his words almost imperceptibly. “We both know it. Something is amiss here. We both know this guy is probably hiding something.”

And so, his fascination mounted with each interaction. And he set about doing what he had proclaimed out on the piazza, getting to the bottom of this. His first step was to befriend Charles.

“I just wonder what makes him tick,” he found himself saying to friends, some of whom told him what he already knew was in its way true: he was not the befriending type. Damn the torpedoes, he told them. And, he added, he had a good idea about the source of this happiness. Most of all, he said, he wanted to meet Mrs. Charles Dawson.

When he did finally meet Sharon Dawson, at a company event early in November, he found her to be perfectly average — not particularly the type of partner to inspire widespread joy in one’s heart. She did not seem so full of life as he thought she might, but he had to admit — even though they’d spoken for only ten minutes or so, near a speaker blaring some nostalgic music popular when most of the people in the room were in junior high school — she did seem to possess some ineffable quality, a sort of harmony, the female version of what Charles himself had, come to think of it, though perhaps somewhat muted by comparison.

Roger Brass pressed on. He invited Charles and Sharon to a hockey game. They were lucky enough to get the company seats and it was a good game, though afterward, Roger couldn’t say he felt much closer to understanding anything. He had to spend a lot of the game explaining the rules to them both, so he lost a lot of time during which he might have been able to slip in probing questions.

A week later, he invited them to a friend’s party, which they stopped by dutifully, but only for forty-five minutes or so. They said they had to get home, that they were taking care of a neighbor’s dog. That sounded like a story to Roger, but he told them that it was good of them to come at all.

Eventually, after suggesting a few times that he’d been meaning to get out to their little hamlet — ostensibly to eat at the microbrewery that everyone seemed to agree was so charming — he got Charles to suggest they meet up there some night.

“Well you should come out to Annecy,” Charles had said. “We could have some food at the Brewery. It’s a great little place. Annecy is a great little town.”

“Perfect,” Roger said. “Let’s do it. Sunday? Maybe I’ll bring a date. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Charles said. “Of course.”

The best way Roger could think about Dawson, about his fascination, was as some awful urge — like the desire to binge eat that some people had. Or, if he were being honest with himself, it was probably more like a sexual desire, like the need of some long haul pilot to seek out a prostitute every time he was in Jakarta and Caracas. Somebody like that fought in himself with this desire, he figured. He understood that drive — or understood it better now, felt a kinship with the furtive movie stars who got caught with some tart in their arms at an hourly motel. Nothing, he realized, is ever so gratifying as the thing you know you shouldn’t do but do anyway. That’s what this thing felt like.

And each contact was a step closer. It was all a step closer and another step closer. Because his discussions with Charles had not yielded much, he felt a need to get to the place Charles called home. There, he could get a better fix. There, he reasoned, he stood a better chance of getting a glimpse of the wellspring from which this apparent joy ran.

Part Four

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in mid-November, the leaves all but gone from the trees, Roger Brass finally drove out to Annecy, to, specifically, the Folsom Plains Brewery. He brought along a date, as he had promised, an old college friend, a girl named Meredith Schultz. Meredith, like Brass, was thirty-one, single. The two of them had a long-standing arrangement that started when their college friends began to pair off: when one of them needed a date — it was almost always for a wedding — the other would fill the role. There was nothing between the two of them, though. Besides a few self-destructive weeks of sex not long after college there never had been anything between them.

Roger picked her up at the bungalow she had bought in a gentrifying neighborhood on the north side of town. She was wearing a long, purple dress and heels. Roger himself was wearing khaki pants and a long sleeve polo shirt. They were after all going to a brew pub, which he was sure he had told her. But he decided not to razz her about being a little over-dressed and instead told her she looked nice. Everything was going according to plan, as far as Roger was concerned.

But then on the way out there, Meredith was in a mood. She sat in the passenger seat with a compact doing her makeup for a long time, silent. He tried to talk to her about mutual friends, her job, the hockey team, but then something — he couldn’t even figure it out later what it had been — triggered a sort of dormant rage in her, and she wheeled on him. She told him that she was sick of him and that she didn’t want to see him anymore.

Taken aback, he joked with her. “Well, Schultz,” he said. “We haven’t been dating really for the better part of a decade.”

“After this,” she said firmly, calmly, finally. “I don’t want to see you again. Ever.”

This was the strangest twist he’d experienced in a while. Except, maybe, for the new guy and the impulse to study him. He hadn’t even suspected that he could elicit such a thing in a woman. He’d had a lot of girlfriends over the years — most of them, admittedly, so short-lived as to not quite qualify as girlfriends — but none of them had ever said anything so toxic. And as a rule, Roger Brass was a relatively stoic guy—not impervious to the reversals and minor difficulties of the world, exactly, but difficult to ruffle. For this reason, he’d been a clutch free throw shooter in high school, standing there at the line with three seconds on the clock almost as if he hadn’t noticed this fact or that there were 2,000 people in the stands screaming at him to miss it. Clutch, they had in fact called him, but for Roger Brass it had been easy, because he didn’t really even register the circumstances, so from his perspective, it was like shooting free throws in his driveway.

But this from Schultz, this — especially coming from these quarters; she was essentially his oldest friend with whom he still had contact, not counting Shane Woodruff, whom he always visited on his trips home to the small town of his youth down in the hills of the southeastern part of the state. Schultz was a dependable friend; the female version of himself, he realized he thought of her as — the only one left of his old college gang, the lot of them 10 years down the road from those days, now a diaspora of sorts, strewn out through the suburbs and back to their own towns and off in Pittsburgh (that was Claire Williams, the one who got away) or down to Atlanta. Other places. Who knew where all they were now. The fact was that they weren’t here in C— anymore. And those who were, were out in the suburbs with their families, with their new 4,000 square foot houses and their wide screen televisions and outdoor kitchens and their chain coffee and sandwich places a mile down the avenue. And he and Schultz didn’t talk to them. It was just Roger and Schultz still standing.

Goddamnit, Schultz, he thought.

He was quiet for a long time and then said, “This is a bit of a shocker, Schultz.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I want to get there and be done with this.”

The thought of calling up Charles and canceling never occurred to Roger. He had the phone number in his wallet. He could’ve pulled over and rung Charles and said that something had come up. He could’ve said, Charles, how about another time? For that matter, he might also have pulled over and tried to talk this through with Meredith, smooth things over, whatever it was. She was probably just having some monthly hormonal issues, he figured. Or perhaps things at the university, where she was an administrator, were not going well. Lots of places up there were experiencing cuts, he knew.

In any case, he didn’t do these things; he watched the road and kept quiet, rolled his eyes a little for his own benefit, forged on, Hannibal in the Alps.

He was thinking, though, that he’d obviously made a miscalculation with Schultz. He should’ve come alone. He could see that now. This could turn into the worst of all possibilities, to be able to get so close to Charles and Sharon, to finally get behind enemy lines and see how the operation worked, and then to have it all blown out of the water by a moody Meredith Schultz.

They arrived at the brewery right on time and he turned the car off and swiveled in his seat so that he could see her better.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

“I’m fine,” she said, unbuckling her seat belt and opening her door. Standing outside, she bent down and added, “You know, I’ve never been better.”            

He had no choice but to get out of the car and follow her into the restaurant. Christ, he was thinking, shaking his head. But he collected himself, braced himself for the worst. Inside, he explained to the hostess that they were meeting some people, as Schultz inspected some nineteenth century memorabilia on the wall from the town’s grist mill, reproductions of documents, bills of sale and invoices, the mundane stuff of commerce. Roger scanned the room for the Dawsons for a minute before finally finding them camped out in a cozy booth near a fireplace.

As they made their way back there, he had more than a little trepidation about what Schultz was going to do. Anything seemed possible. But after the introductions, he was pleasantly surprised — taken aback really — by how lively and charming Schultz seemed. He continued to watch her with uncertainty for a few minutes, worried that it was somehow a trap and that she still intended to dismantle the whole works. But after ten or fifteen minutes, he realized that she was fine, that she in fact seemed relieved to be in the company of the cheerful Dawsons, and was making a point of engaging with them. She talked to them about a tea house she liked in the city and then about a book on the Indians who had been chased out of the region in the 18th century, which had come up because of the plaque on the side of the brewery. But it also turned out that Schultz had done a Masters’ thesis on the interactions between the European settlers and the Indians, which was somehow news to Roger Brass. How, he wondered, had something like that escaped his notice? At all events, she did not pout, as he had feared, or behave badly in any way. She seemed almost content.

The food at the Folsom Plains Brewery was exactly the same as any number of bar-and-grills across the metro area, which was to say, it was fine; not bad, but nothing special. The beer, though, was good, better than Roger thought it would be, as if once beyond the outer belt, the recipes for strong stouts wouldn’t translate. But this beer was superb. He ordered a second one when the waitress returned to take their order.

Strangely, given how things started in the car, dinner went well. Everyone seemed in good spirits. Roger, for his part, had in recent months most often found himself in good spirits when he thought he was close to some view into the life and happiness of Charles Dawson. And at this moment, sitting across from Dawson and his oddly beguiling wife, he felt on the cusp of this knowledge.

True, he got a little loud from the beer. And when the check came, he made a show of covering the whole thing. “You don’t have to do that, Roger,” Charles said.

“Nonsense,” he boasted. “Nonsense.” He was digging around in his wallet for his credit card. “We’re just pleased as punch to get the chance to come out and see your beautiful little village.”

“Thanks, Roger,” Sharon said.

“You know what would be great, though?” Roger said with less finesse than he would’ve liked.

“Name it,” Charles said. “You want us to get the tip?”

“Nah. What would be awesome is that maybe we could grab some tarts at the bakery down the street and go sit someplace, maybe out on the porch at your house and eat them? It’s such a nice evening for November. You have a porch, don’t you?”

Charles was nodding, stealing a look at his wife. “Yes,” he said. “Of course we have a porch, Roger. That’s a great idea.”

Roger could feel Schultz looking at him, staring at the side of his head. But he didn’t turn toward her. He knew in some part of himself that he was on the way down and he was not particularly worried about whom he offended on the way.

And not forty-five minutes later, the four of them stood in the Dawsons’ living room, each holding an apricot tart on one of the light blue Corning plates that Sharon had pulled from the cupboard. Sharon had also poured them each a glass of desert wine from a vineyard in upstate New York.     

“Fantastic wine,” Roger said. “They make some of the best desert wines around up in the Finger Lakes.”

Sharon nodded.

They stood directly above the factory, looking at some of Charles’ cactus paintings, which Sharon had hung on the walls in the living room. Charles hadn’t thought about it until this moment, but these were, he realized, the first guests in their new home. And of course the thing on his mind was not Roger and Meredith and the formation of new friendships, but the strange second income downstairs, the appendage to their new lives. In this moment, the entire scenario seemed improbable.

And then Roger drunkenly said, “I’m on to you, Charles Dawson.” Which was startling because of where Charles’ thoughts had been.

“I know something here is amiss,” Roger was saying, looking around the room and then, incredibly, sniffing like a wolf, like he might have some heightened sense by which he was going to literally smell the thing that made Charles Dawson happy.

Charles looked at Sharon, frowning, and was weighing the possibilities of how to respond to this, but then Meredith, who had been ignoring Roger and looking at the images on the wall, spoke up.

“What’s spring like there?” she asked. “I’ve always wondered.” 

“Sorry?” Charles said.

“Oh,” she said. “I was talking about these desert paintings. Is that where you lived before?”

“Yes,” said Sharon. “We both grew up in the desert.”

 “I was just wondering what it’s like in spring. I’ve never even seen a desert.”        

Charles pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, as if to think.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I guess it’s kind of a strange question,” she said. “I think I once saw on ‘Sunday Morning’ — the show that used to have Charles Kuralt, before he died — you know at the end, they used to have those two- or three-minute segments of sights and sounds of a place. This one that I saw once, they were in the desert and it was early spring. It’s been ages since I saw it, but it’s stuck with me, this one bird chirping, perched on a cactus, I guess.”

“A desert wren, probably,” said Sharon.

“Yes, I think it may have been a desert wren,” Meredith said.

“You’ve never been to the desert?” Charles asked, incredulous.

“No,” she said. “I guess I haven’t.”

“Wow,” he said. “You should really go. You should definitely go. It’s an amazing place.”

“I’m going to,” she said. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I might even go next week.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “I think I just might.”

“We can tell you some things to see,” Sharon said.

“That would be great,” Meredith said.

There was a lull in the conversation as everyone looked at the paintings some more. Soon, Charles noticed that Meredith was looking down the hall, as if for something. Roger was oddly quiet in this moment, temporarily derailed by the desert conversation.

“It’s just around the corner, off the kitchen,” Charles told Meredith. He took a few steps in that direction to show her the hallway.

“Oh, thanks,” she told him.

When Charles turned back, Roger already had Sharon cornered. This guy, Charles was thinking, had a seemingly endless supply of questions. He was beginning to realize that he didn’t like the tone of Roger’s questions.

“It couldn’t have been so bad out there,” Roger Brass was saying to her. He knew he was now officially into his endgame. The clock was running out. He may not have lined up all the pieces well enough to pull it off, but he saw that his chances were about to evaporate. “Trips to Mexico and whatnot.”

“Who said it was bad?” Sharon said.

“But why move here then?” Roger demanded. “Nobody wants to move here.”

“Why not here?” Charles said, approaching them. “It’s a great place. Up and coming. Also, it’s a lot cheaper. A great place to raise kids.”

Charles immediately regretted saying the word “kids.”

“Oh, yes. That’s true,” Roger said, a smile, or maybe more like a smirk, crossing his face. Kids, he thought. Kids. He actually thought of those friends out in the suburbs with their lawns full of four wheeled plastic things and the shrieking noise issuing up and down the block. Was that all? A pregnancy? This was going to be a disappointment if it was a pregnancy at the heart of all of this. He took a very quick glance at Sharon’s mid-section to see if he could note anything approximating a bump there.

“And cheaper, sure,” he said. “But a downgrade on the prestige scale. And anyway, how good are the schools out here?”

“They’re not bad, actually,” Charles lied, just as Sharon excused herself to go into the kitchen, thankful, he knew, to be freed. Roger sat down in a soft chair. It was dumb to have said “kids,” Charles was thinking. He really wished he hadn’t. Kids were the heart of the matter. For thirteen months, so far, they had been the heart of the matter, or the absence in the middle of it.

From his new perch in the cushy chair, Roger Brass could hear Sharon rinsing off the desert dishes, an unambiguous sign that he and Schultz should be on their way. All but an invitation for them to gather their things and move on down the road.

“Kids,” Roger said ambiguously now. It might’ve been with scorn, it might have been to suggest, I have a few myself and can tell you about the hardships.

“Well,” Charles said, feeling obligated to explain his comment. “At some point.”

“Sure,” Roger said. “You guys are young.” They were, too. Young enough.

“So, Roger,” Charles said, understanding that this was going to get worse before it got better, understanding that as long as Roger was still in their house, he would have to be on the offensive. “Has Finnisons changed much in your time there? You’ve been there a while, haven’t you?”

“Eight,” Roger corrected. Then he looked up at the ceiling for a long moment. “Changed?” he wondered aloud, and then, “Yes. The company’s changed, I would say. And I wouldn’t say for the better.”

“Oh?”

“For one thing, people didn’t used to worry about losing their jobs. That’s one change.”

“Are people worried about losing their jobs?” Charles asked, smiling, assuming Roger was pulling his leg.           

“You should get out more, Charles. Come out to the bar after work sometime, get to know the folks on the ground. It’s going to be important for you to know what’s on people’s minds if you’re going to ascend.”

“’Ascend,’” Charles said, not bothering to show his annoyance with Roger’s tone. “Who’s talking about ascending?”

“Is that not your plan?”

“Roger,” he said. “I came here to work in a better environment with good people. That’s the end of the story.”

“I didn’t mean to make assumptions,” Roger said in a way that was clear that he didn’t mean it. “Anyway,” he added, “you’re probably a little insulated as a new hire, but the partners are always sending messages down through channels.”

This also wasn’t really true — the partners had never used rumors this way—but Roger reasoned that it might possibly open up some anxiety in Charles.

Just then, Sharon came back into the room with a confused look on her face. “Where’s Meredith?” she asked.

“Bathroom,” Charles said.

 He peered down the hall toward the bathroom. He could see, even from where he stood that the door was not closed.

“Excuse me for a second,” he said in the direction of Roger, an anxiety rising in him. At the end of the hall, he saw that the bathroom was indeed empty. He looked back down the hallway to where Sharon stood looking at him, her eyes big, saying, fix it, fix this. Behind her, Roger Brass was out of his chair again, eyeing those cactus paintings again.

“Just bang on the door,” he yelled drunkenly, not turning away from his gaze at the wall. “She’s probably just reading your magazines.”

Charles looked on down the hall. This can’t be happening, he thought. He walked past the bathroom, stepped down onto the landing that led to the basement, and descended the stairs. He had no idea why she might’ve gone down the stairs to the basement, but something told him that she had. There was a light on down there, he saw. Christ.

“Meredith,” he said in a low voice, taking each step cautiously, as if Meredith posed some physical threat to him. There was no reply. He said the name again. He crept on into the second room and flipped the light on there. He half expected to find Meredith crouched down among the boxes of widgets, reading a shipment invoice, wondering what in the hell he and Sharon thought they were up to.

He wandered among the skids of product. “Meredith,” he said again and again. There was no answer, nothing. Charles had never been one to frighten, not by the dark or ghost stories or scary movies, not even by dangerous predicaments, like the time a man, probably on drugs, had accosted them on a train in Boston, aggressively asking for money. Charles had told the man to back off, and when the train stopped a moment later, he had whisked Sharon onto the platform, where a crowd was gathered, waiting for the train. But here he felt uncertain, a child’s hesitancy.

What is the matter with you? He said quietly to himself. He turned and walked back through the basement, toward the stairs, turning off the lights behind him, shaking his head as he started to climb.

At the top of the stairs, he could see down the hallway to where Roger Brass still stood; he hadn’t moved. He was staring at one of the cactus paintings with a fierce concentration, as if he were trying to find something he’d lost in the thing. Sharon was back in the kitchen, again straightening up, clattering dishes. “Charles,” she said, apparently hearing his presence there.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Come here, would you?”

Roger Brass turned finally to look at him down the tunnel of the hallway and Charles made an “I dunno” expression and walked around the laundry hutch and on into the kitchen. Just as he saw his wife, he saw, behind her, through the window, Meredith — there was no mistaking her, because of that purple dress, because of those heels — was out in the empty soy fields beyond the lawn, walking away from the house. She was already probably a hundred yards away, making brisk progress toward the woods back there that, along with the fields, belonged to a farmer named Frank Holly down the road.

“Roger,” Charles said then.

“Uh-huh,” Roger said from the other room.

“Can you come in her real quick?”

Roger Brass didn’t answer, but was shortly standing in the corridor next to Charles.

“Um,” Charles said, looking out the window.

It took Roger a minute, but then he saw.

 “Oh shit,” he said. “What’s she doing?”

Charles raised his shoulders. The three of them stood and watched her. She moved quickly, with purpose.

“What the hell is she doing?” Roger said again.

 They watched her for a few more seconds.

“What do you imagine her plan is?” Charles asked.

 “I don’t know that she’s got one of those,” Roger said. “I think something has happened. She’s been acting strange all afternoon.”

“Shouldn’t somebody go after her?” Sharon asked.

 “I guess,” Roger said. “Yes. Absolutely. Jesus Christ. What a crazy person.”

“I’ll go,” Sharon said. She huffed out of the room to find her boots in the hall closet.

“I’d go,” Roger said defensively, but I don’t think it would help anything. “She’s really mad at me.”

“Why’s she mad at you?” Sharon asked, coming back into the room and pulling the boots on while she balanced herself placing one hand on the counter.

 “I don’t know.”

Sharon looked at him skeptically.

“Sharon,” he said, a little too familiar. “I honestly don’t know.”

“I think you’d better go after her,” Charles said to Roger.

Roger looked at him. He was trapped. Schultz had screwed him after all. If he was out there, he couldn’t be in here. Out the window, Meredith continued to make progress through the plowed-under field in spite of her footwear. Roger watched her. Goddamnit, he thought.

“Yeah, okay,” he said. “You’re right. You guys don’t really even know her.”

They were quiet while they waited for Roger to go, but he stood there alternating looks at them and out the window at Schultz’s diminishing figure.

 “Okay,” he said.

It was starting to get a little dark, but something about a material in her dress caused Meredith to stick out. Roger put his empty wine glass on the counter. “I shall return,” he said.

“We’ll be here,” Charles said.

He opened the back door — the same one Meredith must’ve used — and walked down the four stairs to a small concrete pad and then across the half acre that Charles had mowed on Thursday after work, probably for the last time this year.

A long morning rain had left the whole of the earth soaked and his feet sunk in with each step, two inches at least. He was wearing Italian leather sandals he’d picked up in Florence a few years back, and he saw, a few minutes into this that he was going to ruin them. But he pressed on. He looked up and caught a glimpse of Schultz, a distant ship on the horizon, her presence there still marked by the dress, but the fading light was making it more difficult to find her each time he looked up.

A few minutes later, he looked up again and searched for Meredith on the horizon, but she was gone, whether into the woods or enshrouded by darkness or by enacting some more magical disappearance, he couldn’t know. Perhaps she was lying down, he thought. He looked back toward the house to mark his progress. He was probably halfway between the woods and the house now, and he was beginning to think there was something metaphysical happening here, that he was some unwitting exemplar of Zeno’s Arrow, and that each step took him forward only some infinitesimal increment, but not closer to his goal really. And it would go on this way forever.

Part Five

Inside, Charles and Sharon watched for a while, and then retreated to the living room and for a long, quiet time.

“I hate it here,” Sharon said finally. “I thought I’d loved it, but I don’t. I hate it.”

He nodded.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just wanted to change. I wanted to grow up, to find ourselves, to start a family.”

“I know,” he said.

 They sat there above the factory and were quiet for a very long time. It was already practically dark now, a beautiful fall dusk.

 “What do you want to do?” He asked.

“I don’t know.”

“But what is it that you want, Sharon? Let’s start there.”

She looked up at him. “I want,” she started, and then changed tacks. “I don’t want weird guys from your office coming over here, for starters. I don’t want to play shortstop. I don’t want to receive Travel & Leisure. I never want another pesto chicken sandwich. I want to cast off this crap. I don’t want to go to France ever again. The list of things I don’t want goes on forever, Charles. But above all, I don’t want to live above a factory. I don’t want to think about where these parts end up and what they’re actually used for. I don’t want to think about the lives of the workers down there. I don’t want to capital, about leveraging anything.”

Charles nodded. He knew that she was right, that everything she was saying was giving voice to the inchoate thing floating around in his own mind these months.

“I want to forget everything I’ve ever learned,” she said.

He nodded again.

“Everything has been for some stupid made-up idea,” she said. “I throw like a fucking girl. I don’t like the bugs in the country. I don’t like our old house. I just like the idea of it. I see now that those things are different.”

“What do we do?” Charles wondered.

“I don’t know,” she said. “We start by getting rid of this place. I won’t be part of it.”

“Me neither,” he said.

“And I want to go swimming.”

“Okay.”

“I want to go swimming now,” she said.

“Now?” he said. “It’ll be cold.”

It was Charles’ cautiousness that was his worst enemy. He knew this. It had been the thing to almost cost him the relationship back when they were on again off again.

“I don’t give a goddamn,” Sharon said. “I want to go to that river that flows through town and take off my clothes and jump in.”

“Okay,” Charles said, seeing that something was going to won or lost here, today. And allowing that truth in, he felt a little giddiness inside. “We’ll start there.”

They left the back door open for Charles and Meredith to gather their things, and then they drove the two miles into the ancient village and found a way down to the slow moving river, which rose out of the farmland fifteen miles to the west and moved to the southeast, slow and snaking, into the hills down there. They picked their way through undergrowth — the trees and weeds and bushes thinned out now in late autumn — to the banks of the river and they both took off all their clothes and waded into the water.

“Oh my God,” Sharon said. “It’s cold.”

“I told you.”

She waded out to where she was up to her waist, and then she dove beneath the water, and then Charles did the same. When he surfaced, he yelled.

“Shhh,” she said. “The freaking constable or whatever will come down here to see what the problem is.”

“Oh there’s no problem,” he said. “Except this water is two goddamn degrees.”

“It’s not so bad,” she chided.

“Do you remember CPR for when I lose consciousness?”

“I know CPR,” she said.

“Thank God,” he said.

Sharon moved to a deep spot in the middle and swam in circles there. Charles followed her to the spot and he treaded water while she did this. Soon she swam over to him and they embraced there, their legs kicking in unison below the water’s surface. Charles held her, really held her, as they were suspended above the water, their heads bobbing up and down with each stroke of their legs. “I’m sorry, Charles,” Sharon said.

“What are you sorry for?”

She was quiet except for the repetitions of her breath. “For wanting,” she said.

“We can’t help what we want.”

“We can,” she said. “We absolutely can.”

They stayed in the water until their bodies grew numb from the cold, and when they couldn’t take it anymore, they climbed out of the river onto the bank where they’d left their clothes and dressed without drying off. Charles was thinking that they stood on the edge of a precipice, the kind he’d not known in years. He’d forgotten what it was like to have so much at stake, to care so much about what would happen next.

Back at the car, they sat with the heater blowing warmth over them for a long time.

“I wish we could just leave that house and go right now, drive out of this place and never come back,” he told her.

“That would be really awesome,” she said. “I was going to suggest burning it down, but your plan is better.”

They sat there in the warmth of the car as the stars wheeled above them, the earth spinning to make it seem so. For a while, they tracked Cassiopeia through the moon roof, and eventually, they fell asleep. When they woke, it was dawn, or nearly so, the murky, ashen color the world is at that hour. The car was out of gas and it was very cold. Charles woke first and looked over at his wife. Sharon Lyle, he thought — surprised that in that moment her maiden name came to him — this girl he’d met a decade ago on a backpacking trip into the desert with a phys ed. class. He was thinking of that girl, that other girl, from those years before. He watched her inhale and exhale. It was strange what happened to you in life, he was thinking. People always said life was strange — there were even songs about it — but it wasn’t until that moment that he quite understood the idea. And in that instant, while she still slept there next to him in the passenger seat, a small wave of hope flooded through him and he wept quietly — for no real reason, but because life was long and though he’d made a mess of it over and over again, he would get another chance to get it right. Or had good reason to think he would.