Fiction | September 01, 1997
You could tell the Players Theater in Eugene had been a glamorous place in its prime, maybe back in the thirties—the chandeliers still spun in the lobby, and the big ornate balcony still swept across the back of the hall, but somewhere along the line things had gone sour, the neighborhood had gone to hell, and when I got there we couldn’t turn on the furnace except during performances, and the red velvet seats were torn and patched—we took turns sewing seats—and the water in the toilets, when there was any, was always rusty. Across the street there was a big Ryder rental yard and a liquor store, and people were always creeping around in the parking lot at night and setting off car alarms. But I enjoyed being there: I liked the cold and the penury, taking them as signs of our virtue and cultivation, and I loved the back crannies, too, the deep basement prop rooms where the old painted stage sets leaned against the walls like ruins, the cardboard bricks light as air when you leaned to move them. You got the sense that you were doing something dutiful and good, putting on plays, giving people a good time, and really you had to feel that way; there wasn’t any money in it. One way or another all of us wanted a better life, but the whole thing wasn’t bad, as a stopgap.
I did what you’d call assistant directing, probably, but really I did everything that needed doing: I worked as a lighting man for a while, climbing around in the rafters with my leather gloves, and above me the ceiling opened and opened, forty feet at least of darkness, into which I could see the shapes of ladders and ropes disappearing, and if I climbed up toward the ceiling I could hear the rain hammering on the old tile roof and then running down the gutters into the alley. Often we had a certain amount of smoke to contend with during rehearsals, especially if the play called for gunshots—so by the third act we’d get a big rolling smoke cloud collected up there above the stage, wispy, moving with the slow grace of an underwater animal, extending a long limb hesitantly, then pulling it back again, as though it were mulling something over. I could watch it for hours, and usually it was a lot more interesting than what was on stage: two chairs, a man in black, a woman playing Death for a change. It was that sort of theater.
I’d been working on a play about Thomas Edison for a long time, a thing I started in college and just kept banging away on, and one summer around this time I finished it; in the fall season we produced it. A week into the casting a guy named Howard Turner walked in holding his raincoat over his arm, looking curiously around the theater as though he were thinking of buying the place. He was a high school chemistry teacher, forty years old, and he read more or less naturally, leaning to one side with his hand on his belly, his eyebrows lifting now and then as he stood in the yellow light. He had a big black smudge on his white shirt and he was tall, and a little fat, and his hair was matted and greasy around his hatline. We signed him up.
We rehearsed four nights a week for six weeks or so, and sometimes when rehearsals were over Turner pulled on his black raincoat and shambled down the street with me to a shitty little tavern where he played Pik-A-Winner scratch cards and drank Henry Weinhard’s from the bottle. He shelled peanuts with one hand and farted by leaning to one side. “The one-cheek sneak,” he said, grinning across the table. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I put on appearances, in part because drinking with him made me feel older or, I guess, made me feel as though I were in a more advanced state of decline, which is how age appeared to me then. We were there, ostensibly, to work out the few remaining kinks in the script, but we never looked at the script. We drank, and Turner talked, accepting me, generously, as a peer, though I was far younger and had to strain to appear tired of the workings of life. “You divorced?” he asked me. I was twenty-six.
“Do I look divorced?”
He turned his bottle, peering at it. “What, gay?”
“No, just single.”
“What do you think of Janine?”
“She’s nice,” I said.
“She’s a good-looking woman. Wouldn’t mind expanding my role a little bit.”
“I bet you wouldn’t,” I said. Janine Richardson played Mary Stilwell, Edison s wife.
“A little nudie scene’d be nice,” he said.
“Fifty bucks and I’ll think about it.”
Turner said, “You know the story about her ex-husband?”
I said I didn’t.
Turner shifted his big ass in his chair. “Guy named Ray Lunk, worked for the school district. Years ago, before your time. He was a dumb fuck.”
He scratched a card with a nickel and, after examining it momentarily, threw the card to the floor. “Skimmed some money off the school district somehow and bought himself a Cadillac, this big old gigantic white car, used to see him driving it around town. They nail him for embezzlement and she divorced him. Sort of a big story around here.”
Turner played a few more cards, throwing them all away. Then said, “But you know, I don’t think she was totally happy about it. I think she had some mixed feelings.”
“About the divorce.”
“Yeah. You notice she won’t talk to me offstage.”
“I noticed that.”
“I think she associates me with her past,” he said. “Those public school days. She sees me, she sees Ray Lunk. I guess I make her feel bad.”
“Makes sense to me,” I said.
“I guess it does.” He sighed again and put his bottle down on the script. “Just one naked scene would really mean a lot to me.”
“She’d kick my ass.”
He smirked. “I bet she would.”
He held up his hands. “All right,” he said. “Never mind.”
Janine Richardson, the woman playing Mary Stilwell, was a drama teacher from the University of Oregon. In her bursting leather satchel she carried little dialogs written by her students:
A: (pleedingly) Take me away from here.
B: (happily) Oh yes my darling this is why I came to your house today.
A: You are my sole mate.
She was maybe in her middle thirties, though of course I never asked, and she actually looked a little like Mary Stilwell, with her long dark hair and broad, pretty face. I told her this once and she rolled her eyes, so I learned not to compliment her. We saw in each other a sort of kindred cynicism—or, maybe closer to the truth, I wished I were cynical as she, so I admired her. She wore black turtlenecks and tight black jeans, and from the depths of her satchel she took lipstick and gum and her cigarettes, all of them linty and damaged.
She and I went out for coffee a few times after rehearsal. In the bright student cafe I saw the wiggly red threads in her eyes and the pink tinge around the rims of her nostrils. I didn’t ask her about Ray Lunk, or his long white car; I was afraid to. She ordered coffee and no food, and she watched me eat my french fries, one after the other. She smoked constantly. She had no children and didn’t want them. “Kids give me the willies,” she said. Her voice was husky. “I guess you’re nuts about them. Teacher.”
“It’s just a job.” I was a substitute teacher. “And besides, what are you?”
“Teaching college is different,” she said. “Most of the time.”
“But that must be the worst job in the world. Substitute.” She peered at me, blowing smoke to the side. “The kids ever hit you?”
“No,” I said. “They usually don’t pay me any attention at all.”
“Ever fear for your life?”
“No. They’re just kids.”
“It must be very rewarding,” she said.
“It is, sometimes,” I said. And then, venturing, I said, “But most of them are dummies.”
“Oh, don’t,” she said. “You’re too young to talk that way. It’s ugly.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s their fucking parents’ fault,” she said, sullenly. “Turn on the tube and go out boozing, come home and beat each other up.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Now I can talk that way,” she said, scowling. “But I’m an old lady.”
I wanted to invite her back to my place, but I had the idea that if she came home with me I’d speak her name rapturously, or I’d look secretly at her with love and get caught—that somehow I’d end up showing her how uncynical and hopeful I really was, and that she would despise me for it, or think me too young and innocent, unsuitable. This was all stupid, it turned out, but in the beginning I didn’t know much about her, or what she might find attractive. I wanted to tell her about Mary Stilwell’s young curls, and her final brutal fever, but I was afraid I’d speak of Mary with too much love, and Janine would become suspicious. “What the hell is this place? Whose books are these?” she might say, stepping critically through my house, her arms folded. We always ended up walking the rainy nighttime streets of Eugene, I back to my car, she back to hers.
Before she married Thomas Edison, Mary Stilwell worked in his laboratory, just another girl doing the usual sort of dreary work, but her letters, written in her tiny, intelligent hand, show that she liked being there. A certain glamour attached itself to anything having to do with Edison; even then he was famous for his new kind of magic, for conjuring voices from a silver cylinder, and in various circles the phonograph was thought to be a literal miracle, the herald of a coming miraculous age—and what, really, is this day but that? It’s easy to see what they meant, anyway.
Mary caught glimpses of Edison as he careened through rooms, smoky and rumpled, his knuckles big as walnuts. He smoothed his awful hair with his great greasy hand, he screamed at people, he rammed his fists into the walls, he popped buttons off his vest, he disappeared for days. From somewhere in the building came mysterious bangs and booms, never explained. Like all the girls, Mary was suspicious of the big magnetized dynamo in the corner, which pulled out her hairpins and tugged at her buttons, playing at undressing her. Strange acrid fogs drifted through the lab, burning her eyes. In a letter to her sister she described Edison’s filthy hands and sculpted hair and the gloomy shadows like hammocks under his eyes, but we are given to understand that she was drawn to this man’s power and mystery, and who wouldn’t have been? She must have imagined certain scenarios—the late night alone in the laboratory, the darkened room, the smoky sky outside, the hand on her cheek, just mild though keep herself entertained.
Then, and we don’t know why, exactly, Edison began to court her. In the laboratory he appeared behind her, smelly and unkempt, while she punched holes in telegraph tape, her long fingers depressing one mechanical key after another. They walked the fields together, they drove carriages through the countryside. When he proposed to her, by a pond, she looked down at her folded fingers, embarrassed, in a demure gesture common to the times. During their engagement he taught her Morse code, and when they were together in company he spoke to her secretly by tapping a coin on her palm.
The play ended, more or less, when Mary died suddenly of typhoid in the summer of 1884. In thirteen years she’d had three children, and Edison had to wake them all in the night and tell them their mother was dead. The biographies reveal no great history of feeling for her, at least after the marriage, but he is described as shaking and crying at her death; he could hardly talk. We can imagine him wandering through the wide halls of his house in Menlo Park, sad and disoriented, coming as if by accident to his children’s bedroom doors. Do they hear him approach? The shuffle of his feet, his sobs? Some nights in that cold, empty theater, I know, I imagined him coming up the carpeted aisle in his black boots, stepping heavily, mourning, inexorable in his approach, hoping somehow things would return, magically, to their rational course.
One day I ended up at Lewis and Clark High School subbing for a chemistry teacher who’d almost drowned over the weekend. There’d been a storm and he’d been out fishing and got himself washed over the side of his little boat, and I came in wearing my tie and good shoes. Howard Turner, it turned out, had the classroom across the hall. Early in the morning he looked unexpectedly neat—shirt pressed, hair slicked and precise. He unlocked his door carrying a plastic coffee mug. There was a bright sparkle in his eye. “Fancy meeting you,” he said.
“Back me up,” I said. “I’m sending my evil-doers across the hall.”
But it was an uneventful day. I passed out the dittos and the students filled them out uncomplainingly, like job-hunters. There is often a certain careless joy to substituting, something you might not expect. Usually there’s a stool to sit on, and your day is planned for you: hand this out, read these pages. There are no real responsibilities, and the classroom door is open to the hall, so from other parts of the school come the sounds of real labor: teachers and students talking, buses pulling up and leaving, the big doors slamming shut in the gymnasium.
That afternoon I heard Turner across the hall, talking to his class. Then came a pause, and, unexpectedly, a flash of light and a sudden sharp cracking sound, then a yelp of pleasure and an excited babble. Then Turner’s voice, dry and serious: “Don’t go trying this at home.” My own students looked up sluggishly from their desks, like cattle noticing the rain.
The director was Don Hamand. Don, who was thirty, was a bearded John Lennon type who made his own ice cream and brought it to rehearsal in stainless steel buckets. He was married, and occasionally his wife came by wearing their baby on her back. She made suggestions now and then in a high, child’s voice, the voice of a cartoon. Don sat far away, in the back row, in the dark, and shouted out directions. From the stage he was invisible. “Hey! I can’t hearyou!” he’d say. “You’re supposed to step forward, goddammit!Forward!” You’d look around and there’d be nobody.
When I wasn’t climbing around in the rafters I spent a lot of time sitting in the back with Don, holding his clipboard and taking notes for him. “My wife and I are having another baby,” he said one night, watching the stage.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not making any money.” He sighed. “I need another job.”
“You’ve got that d.j. job still.”
“Yeah. I hate it.”
“Keeps me up all night.”
I said, “Turner wants me to write in a nude scene.”
“You know anything about her husband?”
“Janine?” Don winced and shifted in his seat. “Yeah, Ray Lunk. They should have sent him up the river, that guy. She’s embarrassed about it, I think.”
“She’s a pill, you know. But terrific. Beautiful.”
“Hell, yes,” Don said. “Look at her.”
She stood in blue light on stage. Her black ringlets fell over her face.
He said, “I mean, I love my wife, I don’t want to say anything. But you can’t deny it.”
“Another baby.” He sighed again. “You can’t imagine what this is like for me,” he said.
I lived on the coast, about an hour’s drive from Eugene. I paid rent, because the house belonged to my aunt Petta, who had moved to Jamaica. I’m having a tropical crisis! Petta said, and off she went. I didn’t know her well; I remembered her from childhood as a well-dressed woman who wore wide-brimmed hats and sat in an iron chair on our lawn. She was rich through marriage, had worked for a famous auction house and had seen marvelous things pass through her office.Well, she would say. Let’s just say I could tell you some things about the Rijksmuseum. Don’t tell me you don’t know about the new Caillebotte, she once said, a hand on my arm.
She asked me to look after her house—I was living in Eugene, teaching, when she left the country—and I moved in my few little things. It was a huge cedar-shake house on a cliff above the ocean. Moss grew on the roof, and fir trees dripped and scraped against the windows. I didn’t use much of the house, and there was the vaguely uneasy sense of having more room than I needed: unseen rooms full of dark coastal furniture, the old Nooksak blankets heavy on the walls, a big stone fireplace. At night the house buffeted in the coastal winds, groaning and shaking. A wooden stairway went down to the beach, which was rocky and unpromising, and always windy, but away in a little grotto I found Petta’s ratty old towels, a rusty aluminum chair, an empty wine bottle.
Janine Richardson called me at home a week before opening night. She said, “You’re not busy?”
“Well, I’m in a strange mood,” she said, flatly. “I’m all antsy. I get this way before an opening. You ever get superstitious?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, hell, I am. That makes us incompatible.”
“No, come on out,” I said. It was late, and foggy, and I didn’t expect anything. “If you want. It’s nice
out here tonight.”
“All right,” she said. “That sounds nice. Give me some directions,” she said, and an hour later she pulled her Citröen up the driveway. It was ten o’clock, and the junipers in the yard were filled with mist. She looked nervously one way, then the other, before coming up the stairs. “You look tired,” she said, stomping in, past me. She was wearing a brown dress that went only to her knees.
“Sure you have.” She put her satchel down, then changed her mind and picked it up again, slung it over her shoulder. “I might need this,” she said. She clasped it to her. She wore a dusty, noncommittal perfume.
She followed me into the living room, where a long polished table sat like a reflecting pool. On the walls were photographs of Petta’s father in his goggles, driving. Janine cruised past the pictures, then walked to the windows and peered out at the dark yard.
“This isn’t your house,” she said.
“It’s my aunt’s.”
“Where’s your aunt?” She turned to me.
“Jamaica,” I said. I explained the rest.
“Very nice arrangement.”
I followed her into the dining room. From behind she seemed foreign and unapproachable, a prospective buyer. Her neck was long and little wisps of her hair clung to it. I showed her the dining room table, where I kept my typewriter and papers—papers stacked in piles, some math tests I’d just finished grading, empty beer bottles, my books about Edison.
“Ah-ha,” she said. “You used all these books?”
She rummaged through the biographies, letting her satchel swing free. There was a section of photographs, and she pored over these for a while. Then she said, “These are his kids?”
I looked over her shoulder. Mary Stilwell stood there in a flowery bonnet. Janine touched her hair, tucked it behind her ear.
“Well, would you look at me,” she said.
Her daughter Dot was lithe and cottony and stood in the garden with her hands shading her eyes, looking as if she could slide effortlessly out of the frame, like a swan, and her sons, William and Thomas, were more staid and fearful and looked at the camera respectfully, their arms hanging stiff at their sides; but Mary, their mother, was the dark grave beauty of the picture. With a little age she was becoming larger, assuming a sort of matronly width and complacence.
“You were very pretty.”
“Oh, in my day.” She laughed, a lovely sound, lovely in the way she was on stage: generous, unquestioning.
“Something to drink?”
“Beer. I just got out of class.”
“Teacher,” I said.
“Yeah, well.” She lit a cigarette and said, “You don’t mind?”
I gave her a bottle of Henry’s.
“You didn’t put the kids in the play.”
“Child actors,” I said.
“Fuff.” She drank her beer and smoked her cigarette. “You know I was married before.”
“Turner told me.”
“What’d he say?”
I told her the story he’d told me. She smoked and stared out the dark window, watching herself reflected there. When I was done, she said, “Well, yeah, that’s pretty accurate.” She tipped her ashes onto my math tests. “Except it was a Lincoln. The Lunk,” she said, grimly. “I married him in high school. He was handsome. How was I supposed to know he’d be a criminal?”
“How many years did he get?”
She glared at me. “It’s really none of your business.”
I said, “Turner thinks you don’t like him.”
“Oh, no, he’s okay.” She finished her cigarette. “He’s just lonely and it worries me. I see myself ending up that way, you know? Old and sloppy.” She looked down at herself and brushed the ashes from her lap with the side of her hand. She considered her dress. “This is the best I can do these days, you know. This little thing.”
“I used to do better.”
“Let me show you the house,” I said.
“Deal,” she said, and stood up.
I took her upstairs; I could feel her behind me, watching me as I walked ahead of her. In the big hallway we stopped, and she looked from side to side, like someone coming up from a subway entrance. “Lordy,” she said. “This place goes on, doesn’t it.”
“Six bedrooms up here,” I said.
“You rotate?” she said. She flicked her eyebrows up, saucily. “One a day? Rest on Sundays?”
“I haven’t had sex in so long,” I said.
“Oh, my God. Don’t tell me these things.” She looked a little alarmed, and I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing. The door to the attic was ajar. She went to the door and opened it and peered up the rickety stairs. She held her satchel against her hip. “What’s up there?”
“Where’s your bedroom?”
“Down there.” I pointed.
“When’s your aunt coming back?”
“Probably not today.”
We walked down the hall, into my bedroom. From the windows during the day you could see the beach; the lighthouse on the headland to the north winked around and around. There was a good wind blowing, and the glass in the windows shivered and bowed.
She plopped down on my bed. “Nice quilt.”
“Thanks,” I said. I walked to the windows, nervously. Her dress had hiked itself up her thighs. Her legs were smooth and pale. I pointed at the ceiling. “At night I hear people walking back and forth up there,” I said, lying. “Doors close by themselves. Sometimes I hear two women talking up there, but there’s no one around. It gets a little creepy.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
“Seriously,” I said.
She stood up and walked to the window, her flat shoes scuffing the floor. Her dress settled back to her knees. She was standing next to me. “I was wondering if you’d write me a different ending,” she said, pushing her hair back.
“Oh,” I said. “This is about that?”
“For some reason I don’t like the idea of dying. That’s what I mean when I say I’m superstitious. I don’t like dying on stage.” She pushed her hair back again, more forcefully this time.
“But she died.”
“I know,” she said. “This is totally unprofessional of me.”
“There’s only a week left.”
“I know. Just a tiny little scene. Five minutes,” she said. “It’s bad luck to die on stage. I already talked to Don about it, it’s okay with him. He said you might make me a ghost.”
“All right,” I said.
“Or something. Or just write me out entirely, I don’t know. Just at the end, I mean, not the whole thing.” She gritted her teeth and seemed to smile.
“Sure. I promise.”
“If you don’t,” she said, “I’m thinking of quitting.” She kissed my cheek, a brief hard peck, and left, rattling her way back down the stairs and outside. From the window I watched her car make the road, the headlights bob away.
After rehearsal Monday night I was out drinking with Turner again. We were both a little drunk. That afternoon after school we’d been out stapling flyers to telephone poles and passing out posters in the grocery stores. The posters showed Edison leaning over a worktable, a halo of light above him. Mary stood off to the side, looking away, off the page. Hello, darling, Turner’d said, bowing to the shoppers. He’d been in costume, and tapped his shiny shoe on the grocery store linoleum. He’d frosted his hair, and stray gray dots speckled his forehead. People took the flyers anyway.
Now we were on our fifth round. Turner hadn’t changed clothes.
“Mr. Edison,” I said.
“Yessir,” he said.
“The governor of mysterious invisible forces.”
“Hell yes.” He picked at his lip.
“You’re not married, are you.”
“Me? Nah. Not in real life.”
“No. Well, yeah, once. Long, long time ago.” He puffed out his cheeks. “Big mistake.”
“Why’s that,” I said.
“Too young.” He was peering at his beer again. “There’s this woman I’m seeing now, though,” he said, squinting. “Nobody knows but you. And her, of course. And me. We’re keeping it a secret.” He spun the bottle on its base. “You know why it’s a secret?”
He stared at me, drunk. “Because she’s sixty years old.” He held the stare. “She’s a young sixty, I mean. But she’s way the fuck older than me.”
“Where’d you meet her?”
“I met her on vacation when I was in Costa Rica,” he said. Then he leaned toward me and whispered: “She’s from Portland. Also, she’s still married. But she’s getting divorced. Her husband doesn’t know.”
“No shit.” Turner nodded, gravely.
“The husband’s an asshole,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Turner said. “She gives me her side of the story, I know there’s another side, this poor guy working all day, his wife going off on vacation by herself. No, I do feel a little bit bad.” He cleared his throat. “But I’ve got to take what I can get, at this point.”
He was still wearing his striped vest, and watch chain, and dirty white spats over his shoes. His greasy hair stood up in front. I had stolen Janine’s black nylon choker and wore it doubled around my wrist like a rubber band.
“The hell is that,” he said.
“Janine’s,” I said. “I stole it.”
He reached for my wrist. “Let me smell it I’ll buy another round.”
“I’ve got to get up in the morning,” I said.
“Please.” He reached for it again.
“I’m teaching gym somewhere.”
“One more,” he said. He grabbed me now and smelled my wrist, his big hand holding mine.
We had long dress rehearsals that last week, staying until well after midnight. We practiced the new ending until we were all in terrible moods; we began to pick on one another. Don had hemorrhoids and had to sit on a padded cushion-ring, and offstage Janine treated Turner terribly, as I remembered treating outcasts in high school, turning blithely away when he spoke, rolling her eyes. He looked even more haggard than usual: v-neck sweaters with no undershirt, his neck thick and greasy.
When things got especially bad, I made for the rafters. Below me, on stage, Mary touched Edison’s arm and leaned deferentially toward him in a perfect simulation of adoration. She followed him across the stage, time after time, finding the right blue light to stop in; she spoke calmly to reporters, nodding and biting her lips with pride. Then she’d go stomping off the stage and put on her overcoat again and smoke sullenly in the front row. Her ashes marked the red carpet like erasures.
“Looking good,” I called down to her.
She smirked up at me, still wearing her bonnet and high black boots. “Forget it,” she said.
On Tuesday night the weather had turned crappy again, raining and blowing all day, the streetlights swinging over the intersections downtown. I met Janine outside the theater, and we came in together. I turned on a few lights and plugged in the coffee pot. We sat together in the front row, waiting. From somewhere we heard a heavy rumbling that could have been thunder, or maybe a train, or maybe the old building grumbling at us, settling onto its haunches.
She said, “I like the new ending. I’ve never played a ghost before. It’s a very powerful feeling.” She put her hand on my arm. “Let me see if I can describe it to you.”
I heard a door slam somewhere in the basement.
“Someone’s here,” I said.
“It’s very liberating,” she said. She licked her lips, thoughtfully, looking over my shoulder. “Not in the usual sense.”
Someone came walking upstairs, banging heavy shoes.
She leaned closer to me. “It’s actually a little exciting, if you know what I mean.” She shrugged slowly inside her coat, rolling her shoulders again. “I like coming up behind him like that. That’s what it is. It’s secret power. That’s what I like about it. Nobody knows who you are.”
A door opened in the back of the auditorium.
“I want to see you tonight,” she said.
I shivered. “All right.”
“I’m coming out to your place.” Her hand was on my forearm now, steadily. She gave me a squeeze. “After rehearsal tonight?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll bring you a little surprise.”
Turner clomped down the aisle, singing, already in costume. We watched him pour a cup of coffee, his big wide butt toward us. “Evening,” he said, happily.
Turner motioned to me, waved me over.
“What,” I said.
“Come here,” Turner said, and I walked toward him. The coffee machine hissed and popped. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, a big meaty hand on my cheek: “She did it,” he said. “She’s divorcing the guy.” He was grinning like a fool, and he lifted his cup and toasted himself. “How’s that,” he said.
One of Edison’s rivals, an insane inventor named Nikola Tesla, once said that had it not been for Mary Stilwell’s constant attention, Edison would have died of neglect—that he didn’t eat, didn’t wash, couldn’t keep himself in new clothes. But every Fourth of July Edison woke his family by throwing firecrackers into a barrel on the lawn, and in rainy weather he put coins on the tops of metal poles and urged his boys to shinny up. He blew water on his children’s faces from a tiny glass swan. We imagine him insistent and artless in love, but what about the notes to himself in his notebooks? My wife Popsy-Wopsy can’t invent, he wrote. He bought her long trailing satin dresses, which she quickly outgrew as she fattened. True, he read the Police Gazette at the dinner table, and he was disappointed in his sons, who were weaklings, and he often slept in the laboratory. But after Mary died, not yet thirty, he avoided Menlo Park, and when, years later, he married again, he married only for station and elegance, his knuckles clean, his hair well tended. Who’s to say he loved badly, or ungratefully? How can we forget the first time our souls are lit with this mysterious flame?
Janine followed me home that night, her headlights caught in my rear view mirror all the way out to the coast. We parked in the driveway and went down the wooden staircase to the beach. A terrific wind was blowing, plastering my shirt to my chest, and Janine held her coat closed and shielded her eyes. We walked along the beach, on the rocks, picking our way through the driftwood, until we came to Petta’s little grotto, where we could talk without hollering. Janine sat in one of the lawn chairs and I sat in the other. The black ceiling arched over us, wet and dripping. A black pool of seawater sat in front of us, and from far away we could hear the waves banging in and out of some other hole in the rock, hollow-barrel sounds.
“This is a good place,” she said. “Come here often?”
“No,” I said. “Only once, actually.”
“Good except for this being empty,” she said, and rolled the wine bottle toward me.
We sat quietly for a while, listening to the wind. I told Janine what happened after she died: she was buried beneath a tree in Menlo Park, I said, and her picture ran front page in the papers. The laboratory shut down, and black bunting hung from the windows. “Oh, that’s sad,” she said, absently. She patted my arm as if it were the most natural thing. She watched the surf tumbling over itself up the beach. Far out we saw the orange lights of a freighter.
“I hope you understand why I didn’t want to do that,” she said, abruptly. “I know it’s stupid, but somehow that seems like it’s just asking for trouble.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said.
“It’s superstitious and juvenile.” She kicked the bottle into the water, then leaned forward and plucked it out again. “It is.”
“I guess it is,” I said. “I think it turned out fine.”
“You’re sweet to say so.” She sighed. “You know that Lunk guy did me in for a long time. We both used to drive around in that thing, you know? Just sitting there riding along in this car and it was supposed to be somebody’s lunches or something. I still feel like a shitheel for that.”
“Yes.” She stretched her legs in front of her and regarded them in the dark.
“Edison remarried,” I said. “Had some more kids. Two, I think.”
“No, no, no. He was lonely,” I said, though of course that wasn’t quite it.
The wind was cool and fishy. The waves bonked around in the back of the grotto.
“I brought that bonnet with me,” she said.
“You did not.”
“I did. That’s the surprise.” She faced me now, almost entirely invisible in the dark. “That’s it.”
“I knew you liked it, you sleazeball,” she said. “I saw you staring at me.”
“I was enthralled with your acting.”
“Ha,” she said. She turned away again. “I brought one of those dresses, too.”
“You like those, too,” she said.
“You know me too well.”
“And I brought you a little vest I found. I thought you might be interested.”
I leaned over the aluminum arm of my chair and tried to kiss her, but she leaned away. “Huh. Fat chance,” she said. She took my hand and walked us back up the beach, the sand wet and firm under our feet.
“I don’t have any spats,” I said.
“Always be prepared,” she said. She ran up the wooden stairs, taking two steps at a time, her hair wild in the wind. I walked slowly after her. “Weakling,” she said, at the top. She was gasping.
The house stood empty above us, two rooms lit up. The light spilled onto the gravel driveway.
“That’s a big place,” she said. She put her hands on her hips and stared up at it, as she might stare at an office building. Then she went to her Citröen, which sat like a bug in the driveway, and opened the trunk. She took out a blue dress with a black bow, then a pair of long, floppy lace-up boots. The boots were black, and the laces dangled over the bumper. “You like?” she asked. She stared angrily at me.
She draped the dress over her arm. “Here’s your vest,” she said. She handed me a striped, satiny vest with small black buttons.
I slipped into it and buttoned it in front. It hung on me like a shawl.
“Oh,” she said. “You look terrible.” She peered at me, then into the trunk of the car. “That’s all I have,” she said.
I shoved out my stomach. “How about this.”
Suddenly she laughed, that beautiful, clear sound. “Cut it out,” she said.
I led her to the porch and inside. The light in the front hall was bright and frank. I hung my coat on a porcelain hook.
“Just a minute,” she said. She took the clothes and disappeared into the bathroom.
In the kitchen I found a styrofoam cup, split it in half and fitted one half over each of my shoes.
They squeaked. I marched from one end of the house to the other, up and down in front of the windows.
“Spats,” I said, when she came out.
“Good.” She had her hair bundled on top of her head. She was lovely. She had somehow darkened her eyes, and her dress fit her wonderfully, tight at her waist. She spun to show me the laces in back. “Lace me up.”
“I don’t think that’s the idea.”
She shook her shoulders at me. “Do it.”
I laced her up. “This is a shoelace,” I said.
“I couldn’t find anything else. It’s two shoelaces tied together.”
I tied the strings in a bow. She drew in her stomach and turned around. Strands of her dark hair waved in the air like antennae. She smiled and tipped her head back, showing her throat. In her antique dress she was smooth and mannerly.
I took the choker from my pocket. “Put this on,” I said.
“Ah-ha. You psycho.” She snapped it into place. “Like my boots?” she asked, holding out one foot. She grasped my shoulder for balance, and I put my hand on her hand: it was cool and bony and studded with rings.
She clomped to the window. “Show me your books again,” she said
“All right.” I led her through the bright rooms to the dining room.
“Sit down,” she said. “Pretend you don’t see me. Pretend to work.”
I looked at her reflection in the windows. She stood behind me hands on her hips, the way I looked at students, I suppose, waiting for misbehavior, not really minding if it occurred.
“You can’t look at me,” she said. “Study. Pretend you’re working. It’s important.”
“All right.” I opened my books, one after the other, and she left the room. I heard her walk away, into the kitchen. I tapped a pencil. I heard her slam a door, walk further away into the living room, then the dining room, then far away, into the hallway; then I couldn’t hear her anymore.
I stayed sitting. I looked at the pictures. Here was Edison, grumpy and sleepless at his phonograph, his cuffs black and torn; here he was on the lawn, in the sun, reading a book in a chair; here he was in the machine shop, hunched and glowering at his workers; here he was climbing a ladder to retrieve a jar; here he was sitting at his desk, looking at books. His big, weathered head, sitting like a stone in its starchy collar; his wide, ungainly rear; his white hat, sitting on his desk like plate, while he shows a movie, leaning forward into the projector, his eye aligned with something out of the frame. She breathed on my neck.
“Is this what you like?” she asked.
Here she stood under a tree, holding a parasol; here, in bright sunlight, she sat in the stem of a rowboat, holding the sides firmly; here she gazed curiously into a book, holding her two sons on her lap. Here she stood and looked placidly out at me. She raised her chin.
“Do you like this?” She put her nose on my collar. “Where is your soul?” she asked. “Is it here?” She breathed into my ear. I kept my eyes down. She touched my cheek, the corner of my lips. She ran her finger over my chin. “Is it here?” A dark red curtain rising in my mind. She lifted her arms to me, an apparition. “Is it here?”
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