Story #2

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As I pulled on a green fleece jacket, I stepped out onto the porch, which was dark and quiet. It was 11:00, and I had left the house lights off to keep from waking anyone; my wife was an irritable sleeper.

Cold New Hampshire air was streaming down from the water, brisk and sharp. Underneath my slippered feet, I could feel the smooth surface of the redwood deck, slightly damp from mist. I zipped the jacket up and stuck my hands in the pockets.

I looked at the stars.

Beautiful, really. Up here in the suburbs there wasn’t much light pollution, and with this fine fall weather it was clear as a bell; the massive dome of the sky was strewn with tiny, subtly winking flecks of radiance. The smear of the Milky Way was apparent, low and dim by the horizon. Sometimes, I would bring out the reflector telescope—we’d bought it as a family gift, “from us to us,” two or three years ago—and scan around the sky, looking for something new, exploring the old standbys. But now I didn’t want to do that.

Tonight, something else was stirring in me. It was almost physically palpable, enough so that Danah had misread my body language and offered me some tea and Pepto Bismol before bed. It was not indigestion. I wasn’t sure what it was. But it had made me come out onto the deck tonight.

I turned in a slow circle, eyes still fixed overhead. The stars were impossible to count, and their numbers had always astonished me, giving me a real sense of wonder at the vastness of the cosmos. Now, though, I picked a random dot from the chaos, dim and almost exactly overhead, and focused on it, trying to separate it from its neighbors. Just one more star in the galaxy. Just one more ball of gas.

A small noise floated toward me from one of the trees bordering our yard, and I recognized the solitary creak of a cricket. Shouting into the darkness for its friends or mates. There was no response.

The feeling in my stomach was rising to my chest, active and hot, like a shot of espresso. I started to pace on the deck, back and forth, which helped generate some warmth as well. The wind was picking up, bringing with it a stronger scent of the ocean, salt and sea.

For no apparent reason, I remembered an episode from my youth, 26, fresh out of an internship my father had given me, and newly hired by Century Aluminum as a project manager. It was a cushy job, if a little meaningless; I was more or less a middleman between the people who did things and the people who decided things. On my first day, my supervisor, Jim Minon, had found me in my office, bereft, looking unsure what to do with my time. He clapped me on the shoulder, eyes sage and wise, and said: “Remember, son, it’s not about what you’re doing—it’s about what you’re not doing!” He laughed uproariously and trotted away; I would later come to understand that he himself did virtually nothing for the company except draw a check and route messages to me, messages I would in turn direct to whomever actually needed them.

Strange job. It had paid well, though, and directly led to my current career, which was perfect. Perfect.

I started walking faster.

Tomorrow was Wednesday, and a big deal. The day of our meeting with Corporate. We’d be deciding on our branch’s budget for the next fiscal year. No laughing matter, and I probably should have been resting up for it. Yet I knew that if I went to bed I wouldn’t sleep. Not right now.

Danah had no such problems, and had already been snoring by the time I reached the bedroom. Early to bed, early to rise. The life of a schoolteacher. I supposed. She loved her work, she was good at it; nothing else mattered.

And as a mother, at least, there was hardly anything you could ask for better than a teacher. Between her rearing and my support, I figured the kids would have no excuses but to grow up straight and tall. They were going through a phase, true, but then who didn’t?

My eyes were down, fixed on the deck, unblinking; I walked swiftly back and forth, the redwood planks my runway. A great deck. I recalled barbecues, sunbathing, family reading sessions in the summer.

It was starting to fall apart a little, though. Needed a fresh coat of sealant. Or maybe a pressure washing.

Various facts tumbled through my consciousness, like fluttering leaves from a tree. Dry cleaning, tomorrow, 5:00. Pick up the kids after soccer. Get the car washed—mustn’t forget yet again. Danah will be mad.

I remembered driving by the Corvette dealership downtown, seeing the vintage hot rods glinting and beckoning from the shop windows, and feeling an urge to go inside and ask for a test drive. Silly, of course. I didn’t need—or want—a Corvette. Absurd.

This was all absurd. What was I doing? It was nearly midnight and I was pacing my deck in the freezing cold. I had work to do tomorrow, important work; nobody could work on no sleep, that was a fact. As my father used to say, “A good night’s rest is the foundation of a good day.” Or something. I ran my fingers through my hair and turned to go back inside. My eyes danced, taking in the reflections of lights on the glass of the sliding door.

I felt like I was about to run a race, a feeling I hadn’t had in years—not in the boardroom, even, and certainly not here. Maybe I had better have a drink before trying to sleep. That would help.

The scotch trickled into the glass, the only sound against the deadness of the kitchen. I drank it all, went to put away the bottle, then hesitated and for some reason poured another and drank that, too. Barely a pause, then a third.

I left the bottle where it was and walked to the bedroom, feeling the way by memory in the lightless halls, the feeling of the scotch heady and warm. The door swung open with a slight push, silently.

Inside, my wife, Danah, lay on the bed enshrouded in blankets. I moved to her side, walking carefully to avoid making noise. Only her face was visible in her night-light, and that barely; her hair was laid out on her pillow in a carefully-spread halo. Forty four and still beautiful, though aging like all of us. I leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.

I seemed to hear a whistling in my ears, the sound of the wind as you stand on a fast-moving train, and something in my chest screamed—instead of kissing her, I straightened, glimpsed the car keys on her bedside table, grabbed them and turned away.

The jangling may have woken her; I heard her stirring. But I was already out of the room, walking swiftly, while my gut bellowed in indignation, my head asked what I was doing, and something else insistently put one foot in front of the other, out the door, down the steps, all the way to the car.

I slid in and pulled out into the street with a long, squealing turn, then pressed the accelerator. At the end of the block, I stopped at the sign, then at the next block ignored it completely. I was the only person alive. It was midnight in suburban New Hampshire.

The throaty grumble of the Explorer climbed up the scale as I pushed the pedal harder and harder, tearing down the center of Willow Rd. Streetlights flashed by, streaks of yellow and white, and the compartmental part of my mind made note of everything I passed. There was the Herndons’ house. And Abe Biggs, our gardener, in his Victorian. Crescent Street. The John F. Kennedy park.

I cracked my window, and immediately had to squint against the blast of air. I rolled it down anyway. Rolled them all down, one by one. Several sheets of paper in the back seat flipped and disappeared into the jetstream, a bit of litter for some industrious Girl Scout to deal with tomorrow.

Inexplicably, I started to grin, a wide, savage rictus that split my face. The soccer field blew past me, and I had a sudden thought; picking up the car phone in the arm rest, I dialed blindly and rang our home line.

Ring, ring. Then a ring cut short by Danah’s groggy, “H—hello?

Gleeful, terrible, I sang into the phone like I had the best comeback in all of history.

“Have you ever felt like you were in a story?”

Silence. I imagined her bewildered, sleep-poisoned face. “Good luck, babe!” I called and killed the connection.

I’d managed to goose the blundering Ford Explorer to 90 miles an hour before I remembered the overdrive feature; pressing the little button on the stick, I felt a kick of torque, and the needle climbed to 100. 105, 110. Sweet.

Now I was coming into the downtown area, busier, streets wider, and the lights drowning out the stars. More vehicles were on the road; I saw several confused heads turn as I blasted past, and a few puny sedans and even a bicycle swerved and veered away from my path. I’d edged up to 120, and the town was a smear of color; the SUV’s weighty bulk helped keep me on course.

With the wind pulling my hair out behind me, one or two lonely honks audible from spurned Japanese automobiles, speedometer almost at 125, I looked around me at the sleepy night streets, and out of my throat bubbled a long, riotous laugh.

Then silence.