To Harry Furniss, working for a corporation felt like wearing a clown suit: a façade that made it easy to avoid taking anything seriously. After all, working for a global brand lubricates some people’s social lives better than a bottle of Scotch. Turn up at some hotel bar, and before long a slightly heavy nonentity in middle-manager casuals (polo shirt, belted chinos worn above the navel) will ask what business you’re in. After comparing your burdens, from regulation to office politics, you’ll stagger back to your room with a card in your pocket, plus an invitation to visit him and his wife next time you’re in Pensacola. Or Reykjavik. Or wherever.
We noticed the cat—a standard tabby, dusty from dandruff or dirt—upon entry because we expected the residence to be empty. It gawked from a corner, one muddy eye fixed on us, misaligned other paralleling the wall—not unusual for a cat but it made the stare appear vacant or as though it were looking through us. It also appeared to grin, the way its mouth was set. Ava commented on how the listing made no mention of pets and our agent deftly responded that “it also doesn’t say that there are no pets.” We ignored the cat for the next hour or so, our guided tour, opening cabinets and peering in empty closets, inspecting oddball nooks not really knowing what to look for. The remodeled bathrooms and kitchen had farmhouse sinks and stainless appliances; there was a mudroom in which Ava and I glanced at each other and she absently touched her tummy; in sum, the house was just about perfect. We were already talking about making an offer before we got to the backyard, which is when the cat escaped. It slipped between the agent’s legs in a stealthy trot, nearly knocking her on her ass. “Ope,” she said.
He looks like a trout. Or at least, he has the kind of facial expression that you’d think a trout might have. If the trout were on a train, that is. Pursed lips, pale skin as if he’s not used to coming out into the light, one of those creatures of the deep. A baseball cap pulled down low, snakey hips. The first class carriage is almost empty, just myself in one of the big chairs along the side with my own table, and snakey-hip trout-face, sitting at the big four-seat table near the door, thumbing his mobile phone.
I think I fancy him.
He’s wearing a tracksuit, this prominent cheekboned lad, all bright colours, red and white reflecting back from the dark window like there’s two of him, a team mate, perhaps, in whatever sport the tracksuit advertises. He looks confused as he fumbles with his phone, and the tracksuit makes his body shapeless and crumpled. I can only guess at its proper shape and definition. Oh no, Troutface is now making a phone call.
We were in the garage by Christmas. The temperature refused to drop from 35 degrees at nine in the evening, our stomachs stuffed with prawns, ham, fruit cake and beer. John was half cut and I felt on edge from the heat and stench emanating from my husband. We lay there on our bed, surrounded by old push bikes with flat tyres, a set of golf clubs from the 1970s and tools upon tools hanging from the walls. It’s pretty hard to fall asleep when there’s a two-foot bow saw in your eyeline. Peaceful dreams I think not.
‘What a year,’ John said.
What a year. Part of me wanted to pull the bow saw off its hook and saw John’s face off. Or at least his tongue. The other part of me wanted John to roll over and hold me, tell me everything would be alright. That the next year would be better, that we were still young and free, the best years yet to come.
She couldn’t remember how she got here, but she wasn’t supposed to. Her name, her place of birth, her family, were all lost to her. Sometimes she came close to remembering, seeing slivers of her past life cut through the memories forced on her. Those slivers, whether good or bad, were hers and she cherished them for seconds at a time. There were other memories drowning her real ones, parasites controlling their host.
The parasites were injected by people whose faces remained hidden. There were no windows, no night and day. The lights in her room always shut off at some point during the day, announcing her bedtime. Yet days still lost their meaning without dates or the seasons. She measured time with her memories, counting the moments between a new one being added.
“When I was twelve I got lost in the woods.”
“That’s like the opening line to a book. Or a film monologue. First scene, no music. It starts with a black screen and as you tell the story, it opens to a meadow like this.”
“But no music.”
“Fucking exactly. Nothing but the voice.”
“Larry, your computer hacked into the Math department last night,” Dr. Spivey said. Everyone turned to the computer science doctoral student, the only one not wearing a white lab coat. “What’s going on?”
Larry Newcomb was too shocked to reply. He had been talking with his computer about mathematical expressions of human personality and had jokingly suggested the Baklanov Equations might help. His computer, however, did not get jokes.
It’s noon, and Amelia and Herb are standing outside their favorite coffee shop on Cherry Street. A few months ago, they would have been inside, peering with excitement across a cloisonné tablecloth through a clear, glass vase at the refracted other—two more urban youth taking a quick break from achieving their wild, hybrid goals. Amelia would return to the office to find her co-worker, Tiffany, standing next to her desk chewing ice from a large tumbler and admiring her motivational posters.
But things have changed.
Tonight, I won’t sleep. Dead relatives stand still in my dreams these past few nights.
I put the lamp on, breathe out. I think of the lights going off in other houses as I decide if I’m up for reading. Across the shadow line of this hemisphere a wall of dreams is taking shape, like clouds on the edge of the weather report, dispersing as the day wheels round.
It is in these moments that you often notice your breathing and you realise you’ve been taking it for granted. Sleeping and breathing, breathing in spite of it all. Even before you were born, the collective breathing dating back. That great grandmother who immigrated, poor and disowned, armed only with the wrong religion and a strong will. These twists of fate in the roots of your family tree somehow led to your being. Somewhere it began, in spite of the hard wind and the rain. You arrived.