It was the summer of theme parties. The Millers started it in June with line dancing. They'd found some group from Texas who called themselves Get In Line! and we watched and followed these sequined wonders as they stomped through the "Achy-Breaky" and the "Mason-Dixon." The Bissels tried to top the Millers a few weeks later with a psychic named Francine. She read palms, tarot cards, was even able to talk to Lena Bissel's great-grandfather, but like so many spiritualists she had no sense of humor and did not appreciate Chuck Hubert's zombie walk. Soon after that the Makendricks transformed their annual July Fourth party into what would have been a spectacular kite party had there been any wind. Laura Makendrick broke into very public tears. And eventually Zoe and I made a stab at it. We concocted a "Foods of the World" party which quickly turned into a "Drinks of the World" party. Once again Charlie Hubert performed his zombie walk -- a few people always egg him on -- and a table was broken, certainly no antique. I really don't know what it was about that summer, maybe we were all just restless, but normal parties felt dull and forgetful. Instead, there had to be a something learned even if it was that borscht does in fact taste like shit and a healthy supply of rum can save almost any party.
Tonight belonged to the Greers, Bill and Tammy. In the inferno of our friends they dwell in the third circle: the friends of friends with money. Lots of money. I sat downstairs on the couch and waited for Zoe. We were running late but I didn't care. An awful rumor had spread that there would be no alcohol served, something about false courage and a numbing of the brain. Yes, I thought, booze will do that to you. Thank God. So I was having a drink which quickly turned into a series of drinks, all lit with gin. That summer I was drinking gin. But I wasn't smoking.
The television was on and my three-year-old son was propped a few feet from the screen. Static raised his fine blond hair. The beginning of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was playing on the VCR. Ray loved it. I knew because he had his hands jammed down his elastic pants and he mumbled about cars -- "Vroom, Vroom" -- as he squeezed his groin like a toy horn. In May he had discovered the first joy of the pleasure principle. We tried to thwart this habit by continually slapping him on the wrist and looking angry and pointing a finger to the ever-watchful sky, but he still carried on, our little boner boy. And nowhere was off limits. Restaurants. Birthday parties. He could pin the tail on the donkey with one hand. For a while we considered building a cardboard skirt, like the kind that prevents a dog from scratching his recently pinned ears, at least that's the joke we told gullible friends.
"He'll grow into it," I said to the nervous baby-sitter. She was sitting on the edge of a chair, a knapsack hugging her shoulders. Her name was Gwen and she had a large head and a large nose. I wondered if the kids at school were merciless toward her. Sombrero face.
She giggled. I thought of following up with a gag about Dick Van Dyke, but I wasn't sure if she'd even know who Dick Van Dyke was and I didn't want her to just hear the words "dick" and "dyke." So I offered her a soft drink instead.
"No thanks, I'm fine." She also had a bad complexion. I figured baby-sitting was a relief to her on Saturday nights.
"We won't be late," I told her.
"That's all right. I mean, it doesn't matter." She shrugged her knapsack. "I have lots of work." And she smiled without showing her teeth. I thought the worse: braces and receding gums.
"And he's easy," I said, gesturing toward my boy. "After this, another video, and if he's still awake after that, pop in another." I went over to the folding table that acts as our bar and mixed myself another drink. "He's seen them all a hundred times, the same damn movies, over and over again, but still, you know." My point clinked out in falling ice, and there was silence except for Truly Scrumptious singing her song. I sat back down. On the floor above I could hear Zoe's maneuverings. I didn't want to rush her; she was always feeling rushed. It was better to stay quiet than to bitch about being late. Just accept the situation. And I had that familiar feeling of waiting in an airport lounge for a delayed plane, and the more I waited the more I became convinced that this plane would crash over Ohio or skid into the ocean and that this drink would be my last drink and that this moment would be my last memory of things.
Soon Zoe came downstairs and I was relieved to see her. She gave me an expression of exasperation. "Sorry," she said.
"No problem." I lifted my glass to show her that I had been taking advantage of the lag time.
She said to the baby-sitter, "You must be Gwen."
The baby-sitter stood up. "Yes, hello Mrs. Scott."
"Well." Zoe's hands dropped to her side and she took a deep breath. She was beautiful, tanned from the summer, firm from jogging, and her hair had recovered some of its youthful blondness. "Just put him to bed when he gets tired. He's had dinner but if he gets hungry, give him a fruit roll-up. They're in the cupboard." I used to love to watch Zoe think. Her deep-set eyes have these attractive pouches and when she thinks she seems to search them for misplaced items. "Oh, and the Greers' phone number is by the kitchen phone, along with the emergency numbers."
The baby-sitter was nodding her huge head. "Got it," she said.
Zoe turned to me. "Okay, we're off." She walked over to Ray and slumped her knees against his back. "Ray, we're going," she said in a louder voice.
"We'll be back in just a little bit." I knew that Zoe wanted a child that would cry at such departures and wrap helpless arms around her and wail terribly. But Ray just sat there, hands down his pants, readying himself for a stupid car that could fly.
I ruffled his hair and said, "Have a good time." And as Zoe went toward the front door, I topped off my drink and took it with me. "'Bye now," I said, a bit awkwardly.
The Greers live just far enough away to remind us that we don't live in the truly nice neighborhood. "You know they're not serving any booze," I said.
"They've got more money than anyone and they're not serving booze. That just doesn't seem right. There's no heavy machinery involved." Zoe was quiet and looked like a weight lifter before attempting a clean and jerk. "You all right?" I asked.
"I'm not in the mood for a party tonight," she said.
"I hear you. Especially a party without booze." The sky had this grenadine glow. Months earlier a volcano had erupted on some distant island in the Philippines. A whole village was destroyed, fifty-seven people burned up and blown into the atmosphere -- a definite tragedy -- but all that summer every sunset seemed straight out of Hollywood.
"They have a surprise in store." Zoe pushed down the visor and checked her makeup in the pop-up vanity mirror. She wiped at the corners of her mouth. "I hate surprises," she said.
"Me too." And as we passed under tree-lined streets, I knew that there were eyes on the two of us and that we were somehow talking to those eyes, a third-party viewer, a witness, a ghost. "Surprises are for suckers," I said. The houses and front lawns grew progressively bigger. I rolled down the window so that the rushing air could enter our conversation.
She paused for a second. I thought she was going to say something that would force me to pull the car over and face her. A hearty dialogue. But there wasn't any melodrama in our life -- no affairs, no unemployment problems, no addictions -- and we still thought that people on daytime talk shows were freaks. We were simply bored.
"What?" I said again.
Zoe reached over and clicked on the radio. The volume was too high but neither one of us bothered to turn it down. And I didn't drive any faster, just a flat thirty-five miles per hour.
The Greers' driveway was filled with cars and edged with standing torches. We parked on the street along with a few other late arrivals and followed the bending line of torches to the house: a large neocolonial, white with black shutters. During Christmas they placed an electric candle in each window. It was quite dramatic. And during Easter they hosted a huge Easter-egg hunt. They put a hundred bucks in the big egg. Kids would sprint and dive into bushes. But Ray was hopeless, sitting down and devouring the first chocolate bunny he came across.
"How do I look?" Zoe asked me.
From behind the house we heard a noise. It wasn't a social noise, a mingling of chitchat, music, and laughter; it was more like an angry swarm of mosquitoes, or, worse yet, a solitary two-hundred-and-fifty-pound mosquito. Mosquito-man. My mind tripped onto a late-night movie I had recently seen -- The Island of Dr. Moreau -- and I remembered those failed genetic experiments. Boar-man. Weasel-man. Orangutan-man. They terrorized a bare-chested Michael York. And at two in the morning I rooted for them to rip his body into pretty blond shreds.
"Take my hand," I said to Zoe.
We circled around some bushes, a bit of mulch, a bird-bath, and then walked through a gate which opened onto a beautiful back lawn -- almost an acre and a half of perfect Bermuda grass. Off to the side, huddled in a circle, our group of friends hummed with their heads lowered, their arms intertwined. Just behind them a fifteen-foot stretch of coals glowed hot. It looked like a strange pep rally.
"Are we playing State tomorrow?" I whispered.
"Maybe it's a barbecue."
We stood still and no one noticed us. No one said, "Hey, it's the Scotts." No one offered us drinks or cheese puffs. No one cared. The circle was closed, and we didn't want to be one of those pushy couples. Besides, we were late, we didn't have any party rights. So we just watched as the hum slowly grew around them. A neighbor's dog howled, its timbre much more profound. And soon the hum reached a breathless pitch, and faces and arms slowly lifted toward the sky as if these people were chanting refugees waiting for the helicopters to drop down supplies from L. L. Bean. Finally, the hum ended with a lung-emptying "Ahhh," and there was cheering and smiling and one man, a tall guy in a shiny suit, said, "Did you feel the power?" Everyone nodded. "Yes?" he asked. He glanced around the group. "Well, that's the power of positive thinking." He made a point of training his eyes on each and every person. "That's the power you hold trapped within your body." He fisted his hands. "The power you never let out." Raised his finger. "Why?" Paused. "Because of fear."
Still no one noticed us. Attention was focused on this man. He had a manufactured face, smooth and with only a few lines to delineate a mouth, a nose, eyes. His voice was a personal whisper spoken to a crowd. I was sure he had a set of self-help videos in the trunk of his car, maybe an infomercial in the works. "Fear," he continued, "is what we have to overcome. Most of us are still children. We are afraid of the dark, afraid of the unknown, afraid to succeed. Why? Because if we try to succeed, if we put ourselves on the line, we can fail." I tried to catch the eyes of a few friends by making quick faces, but no eyebrows raised in recognition.
"Maybe these are the Stepford friends," I said to my wife.
"You know, Robot people."
"Now." The man clapped his hands. "I see some new guests have arrived." He gestured toward us like a game-show host displaying a brand-new washer and dryer. "So I think it's a good time for a break. But remember, let's psych each other up. We're part of a team." And then, with surprising quickness, he left the group and came over to us. "Hi," he said. "I'm Robert Porterhouse."
"I'm Zoe Scott, and this is my husband Mal."
We shook hands. He had a pinky ring and I hate pinky rings. He also had an expensive gold watch that hung loosely from his wrist.
"Well, are the two of you ready?" he asked.
"For what?" I said.
He grasped our forearms. "To change your life. To become who you want to be."
I smiled. "A baseball player? Sure."
I could tell by the way Zoe looked at me that she wanted to hit me on the arm, but instead she quickly pushed her voice over mine. "Why not," she said. I was a little put off by her enthusiasm. We used to laugh at our born-again friends.
"Great, Zoe. You have to align your belief system so that you get what you want."
"Even if it's a bigger house? A Porsche," I said.
"Sure, if that's what you want."
"How eighties," I said.
"No Mal, it's about what you want." He poked the air in front of my chest. "About what's in here." He glanced over our shoulders. "Now, I've got to check on things. I'll see you in a few." And he walked away.
I turned to Zoe. "And that night, Malachi Scott learned how to live."
"Don't be such a cynic."
I grabbed Zoe by the arms. "Did they get to you too?" I made a plea to the heavens. "You bastards!"
"Jesus, how drunk are you?"
"Not enough for this crap."
"You're going to make a great bitter old man."
"It's the gin. But thanks anyway."
Zoe was once a fan of my banter, thinking it was smart and urbane and very round-table, but now she turned away and made a disparaging sigh. "So clever," she said.
The circle had broken up and smaller groups formed. Bill and Tammy Greer saw us and waved and came over. Nervous enthusiasm creased their athletic faces. He was of Norwegian descent. She was of Finnish descent. They both wore the same shade of blue.
"Hey, you guys," Tammy said.
We apologized for being late, then I gave Tammy a kiss, and Zoe gave Bill a kiss, and Tammy gave Zoe a kiss, and Bill shook my hand. After that, we had little to say.
"So," I said. "What's going on here? A barbecue? A little luau?" I swung my hips.
"No, no," Bill said, shaking his head. "Something a lot more...powerful."
"Okay," I said. "Powerful."
"Yep." Bill turned toward the burning coals. A man in asbestos boots was spreading them with a long metal rake. "We're going to walk across those coals." He spoke like a man with a crazy dream.
Tammy curled her arm around Bill and gave him a squeeze. They were terminally in love: if one died, the other would soon follow. "And we'll never be the same," she said.
"That's what I've gathered," I said.
Bill gave us a spirited thumbs-up sign. "And we can do it. We really can."
"Together," Tammy said. "And with Robert. Isn't he the greatest?"
Zoe nodded. "He seems very motivational."
To show my solidarity in the world of backyard adventure, I took Zoe's hand. We were like the suckerfish on the belly of a large confused shark. "Super," I said.
"He's very well regarded," Bill said. "In his field."
Tammy giggled. She was sweating. It wasn't dainty sweat -- nope, she needed a towel. "And we can do it. I know we can." I could see the old Wisconsin cheerleader surfacing.
"We can," Bill agreed.
And then Bill and Tammy hugged us, almost tackled us, as if we had already survived some experience. Their skin smelled of apricots and the beach, their hair a floating trace of smoke, and against all my group-hug instincts, I found my head resting on Bill's shoulder and my arm wrapped around Tammy's waist.
Eventually we separated, and they left us for another couple that wasn't mixing properly. "Walk on coals?" I said to Zoe.
"I'll put on a silly hat. I'll run wildly with a hopeless kite. But hot coals! That's beyond the call. I don't remember Martha Stewart mentioning any hot-coal-and-canapé party."
And -- thank God -- Zoe smiled, and for that moment found me amusing again. "You're the worst."
We decided to separate because we hate couples who cling, so she went off in one direction and I went over to Phil Bissel and Chuck Hubert. They were lingering by the coals, both looking defeated.
"No drinks, Mal," Chuck said.
"I can't believe they expect me to walk on fire sober. I mean, with a few drinks, maybe." Chuck reached down and ripped up a clump of grass. "I've done worse." From his palm he picked out single blades and dropped them to the ground. "And no food either."
"What?" I said.
"Nope. We can't eat until we've done the firewalk."
"Bribery," Phil said. He was a fat man who milked his baldness for humor. "There's no way I'm doing it."
"They have champagne when we finish. The good stuff." Chuck grinned. "I might make a sprint for it now." He slipped into a cartoon gesture of running -- left leg raised, elbow bent. "Hold me back!"
I stared at the coal bed. It had a mesmerizing effect. I pictured a buried village beneath it -- everything laid to waste and eventually covered in ash. "It's a shame to ruin such a nice lawn," I said.
Chuck spat onto the coals. "Oh, you think our man Bill wouldn't think that through? See those stakes?" He pointed. "That's where the pool is going."
"Yep, Bill's putting in a pool, has the contractor and everything, and these coals are in the deep end."
Phil threw an ice cube on the coals. "I don't know what he's thinking," he said. "There's just no chance."
Herb Frankel came over and mimed golf swings. "Boys been playing?"
He patted me on the back. "How're things? Work all right?"
"Fine." They all knew my job wasn't going well, but some people, like Herb, pretended to empathize, while others just pretended everything was fine.
"It's a tough market. No rhyme or reason. Have to sweat it out." The shimmering coals tinted Herb's face with a red Saran Wrap glow. I imagined him suffocating. "You going to do this shit?"
"I can't imagine."
"How about you, Chuck? A little zombie walk across the coals."
Chuck cringed. He always regretted his drunken performances. "I don't think so." Then he lifted his glass of soft drink. "No booze."
I tried to spot Zoe, but couldn't find her. The sun was down and the night was here and the coals now looked like a very cheap hell that housed very cheap souls. More people came over: the Vollopes and the Burnhams, two couples who always vacationed together; and Leslie Pomeroy, heavily medicated on a new antidepressant. She threw an espadrille onto the coals. It burned quickly, and we all watched.
The man in the asbestos boots stomped over and warned people not to disturb his spread. "It's essential that it stays pure."
"Are they just briquettes?" someone asked.
"No. We get this stuff from Hawaii."
People were impressed.
I was drinking 7-Up with three wedges of lime, but it didn't fool me. Nothing fooled me. At that moment I knew the ending to every mystery novel, every suspense movie, and all the people around me were stupid. These are moods I get in, most often when I'm driving. No one knows where they're going except me. Standing next to those coals, their bloom quivering against faces, I saw each person as an old man and an old woman, and I saw them alone and waiting and still cold by the fire. I guess it was the gin. I should never drink on an empty stomach.
Zoe appeared at my side. She was holding a Coke. "It's happening soon," she said.
"Tammy wants everyone by the coals."
"I wish Ray was sick," I said suddenly.
"Huh?" A look of disgust was on her face.
"Not sick sick, not dying sick. God no. Just sick enough so that we had to stay home."
"Please. Don't get this way."
"Just a little fever, that's all."
"Mal, shut up."
Bill and Tammy Greer walked over with Robert Porterhouse. Bill cleared his throat in a stagy way and everyone hushed. "Well, okay, great. It's great having everyone here, just great. I'm so glad you're all here. Yes. Anyway, it's going to be an exciting night. A bit scary." He chuckled nervously. "But it could be really special. Now I'm going to turn it over to Robert. So here's Robert."
Some people applauded.
Robert Porterhouse loosened his tie. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He smiled a let's-get-down-to-business smile. I was starving. The coals reminded me of the simple cookouts we used to have. Robert gathered us into a tighter circle -- it was like camp -- and he told us the story of his life.
"My first memory was of fear. The bogeyman. He was an old man with sharp teeth and long dirty fingernails and he was hungry for children. He used to live under my bed. Whenever I wet the sheets, and I did quite often, I would tell my mother that it was the bogeyman. It was impossible for me to go to the bathroom. Why? Because he would've grabbed my ankles and dragged me under. As basic as that. It's that fear that stops us from doing what we really want to do."
I looked around the group. I had to suppress the urge to nudge a few people and make loopy gestures at my head.
"So," he continued, "how do we get over this bogeyman that lives inside of us? Do we turn on the lamp and check under the mattress? Does that solve the problem? No, because we all know that the bogeyman can't be seen in the light. Only in darkness. That's when you see his glowing red eyes and you smell his rotten breath. Sure" -- he put his hands in his pockets and paced -- "I know what you're saying: those are kids' fears, and as adults we grow out of such fears." He let the last word linger in the air. I felt on the verge of being startled, like when you know that the necking couple in a horror flick is soon to be doomed. "Or do we?" he asked.
The silence lasted even longer this time. Robert knelt down and ran his fingers through the grass. Then he started confessing. "I was twenty-three years old. I flunked out of college. I was a hundred and forty pounds overweight. I had no money. No job. I could barely get up out of bed. In fact, sometimes I spent the whole day in bed. Now what kept me there? What brought me so low? It was fear. I still had that bogeyman under my bed. I still thought that if I took one step I'd be finished."
Fireworks would have been so much more fun. We could have leaned against each other and oohed and aahed at the exploding dandelions and the fluttering snakes.
"How did I break the domination?" He stared at Clare Worden. She was surprised and she smiled and lifted her hands as if she were drying her nail polish. "Well, something bigger than me made me take that step. It was 1989. And there was an earthquake -- a pretty big one -- and I'm in bed." He began to act out the scene. "Suddenly, my whole apartment collapses, the second floor becomes the first floor. I'm thrown out of bed. I'm in a T-shirt and underwear. And I have to get out. All the windows are broken. There's glass everywhere. A ton of it. I also smell gas. But I still don't move. I'm too scared. And then I hear it, someone crying for help. Then I hear more people crying for help. I know I have to do something. So I concentrate on those cries and I walk and I crawl and I carry those people out of the building. At that moment my mind was completely focused on the task. And I kept on repeating to myself, 'Save Lives. Save Lives.' That day I took five people out of that building. Most of them were elderly, helpless. And when it was all over, and I was wrapped in a blanket and drinking coffee, I didn't have one cut on either foot."
Some peopled sighed in real wonder.
"Is this a miracle?" He shook his head. "Absolutely not. This is the power of the self. At that moment I overcame my fear. I took a step, and with that step the bogeyman disappeared. Now I'm not all that smart. There's nothing 'special' about me. I've just learned a way to align my belief system so that I get what I want. I've empowered myself through positive thinking. Now, I know how this sounds, a whole lot of New Age mumbo jumbo. But I swear to you, and I hope to show you, that with the mind focused, with it directed, there's nothing you can't do. Absolutely nothing."
And for the next hour he tried to convince us that this was all true. He had us doing exercises, meditations, power screams; we played games of trust. I watched Zoe fall into the arms of Jasper Cunningham. Then he fell into her arms. They giggled. Jasper brushed aside his too-long hair and tucked it behind his ears. He acted like a tennis pro. And once again I thought I knew how everything would end. Bill and Tammy orchestrated the activities like amphetamined cruise directors. "Oh, this is fun," they said over and over again. But as time wore on, the rest of us became grumpier and grumpier. "I'm going to pass out," Leslie Pomeroy moaned. The Vollopes and the Burnhams whispered among themselves and hoarded mints. Phil Bissel's baldness radiated defeat and Chuck Hubert was beyond the semblance of life. It was already obvious that no one was going to walk on hot coals, no matter the possible benefits to the soul.
"The heat is over twenty-five hundred degrees Fahrenheit," Robert Porterhouse told us. "Right now it's hotter than the sun."
"Really?" someone said.
"And we will walk on it without burning ourselves Right?"
"Right!" It was one of the first things we had learned: interjections empowered.
Then Robert slipped off his loafers, slipped off his socks. The man with asbestos boots prepared a discreet first aid station which nobody was meant to notice but everyone did. Tammy Greer looked ready to cry into her sweat -- she was a liquid special effect -- and Bill seemed prepared to drown himself on her shoulder. "Okay," Robert said. "Here I go." A deep breath. Another deep breath. His eyes stared straight ahead, as if they were connected by extension cord to a distant outlet emanating a positive force. "Cool moss, cool moss," he said.
We all chanted along with him. "Cool moss, cool moss."
"Cool moss, cool moss." He goose-stepped across the red-hot coals, his heels kicking up brilliant embers that drifted like the happy fireflies of a summer stroll. But I was waiting for his feet to bubble, for his legs to melt, for this plastic man to scream out, "Oh fuck, was I wrong! Call nine-one-one!" But he kept on moving, and within seconds was finished. He let out a whoop. All of us politely applauded. He rushed over to the group and showed us his feet. They were dirty, a bit pink, but unblistered. "You see, that's the power, that's your power." He was talking excitedly, his exhilaration charging the air. "Your mind can do anything. Absolutely anything!"
People smiled. They nodded. Clare Worden asked if she could touch his foot, and Robert happily obliged. "Unscathed," he said. "Completely unscathed because I didn't let them be scathed. My scathing is my own doing. To be scathed is to be negative. I was scathed. But I will not be scathed again." He practically conjugated that verb for us, and we lingered around the coals like a classroom of uninspired kids listening for the final bell. Empirical evidence was beyond us; we lived in speculation. Some people excused themselves to go to the bathroom. Others were fascinated by their cuticles. Even Bill and Tammy had given up on eagerness and were now in adrenaline detox.
So Robert Porterhouse walked across the coals again. "Cool moss, cool moss," was chanted with the vigor of rote. "Hey, guys," he told us. "That's the power."
The third time he did it people barely noticed. I was standing with Zoe and Jasper. "This is pitiful," Jasper said.
"I mean," he repeated, "just pitiful."
Robert was clapping his hands, patting backs, searching for high-fives. His face was desperate. "C'mon, we can do it," he said.
Herb Frankel heckled, "No, you can do it."
Then I slipped off my cheap shoes -- I wasn't wearing socks -- and started across the coals, a glass of flat 7-Up in my hand. There was silence. No one said, "Cool moss, cool moss." A plane flew overhead, and I wondered if those passengers could see me tread through flame. Maybe they thought that this was an exotic land instead of a prime piece of real estate. Maybe I was a holy man. Maybe I had powers beyond comprehension. Maybe I could transform the elements and turn a hot-coal party into a pool party. So I imagined that I was in the deep end treading toward the shallow end, where a lounge chair floated, a gin and tonic nestled in the drink holder. Mahatma Malachi. Before I began, I was finished.
Robert ran over and hugged me. "Yes. There it is." His face was all relief. "And how are your feet?"
"Fine," I said. I lifted them up. They were covered in ash.
Robert turned to the rest of the group. "See. It can be done."
Chuck Hubert shook my hand. "That's the farthest I've ever seen someone go for a drink."
"Well," Zoe said, "that was interesting."
Robert stayed close to me. I was his first convert. "Don't you feel like you could do anything?"
Now that I was his shill, I said a loud "Yes!"
People still weren't convinced. Robert and I walked across the coals together. Then we did it hand in hand. Soon, we were skipping, but by that time Tammy was locked in her bathroom, Bill was apologizing, and everyone was drinking the champagne and eating the caviar, the toothpick-harpooned shrimp, the sliced ham, the smoked salmon. Robert packed up his motivational devices. "Some people just aren't ready," he told me.
"Yeah," I said.
"But I'm proud of you, Mal."
"Thanks, Dad." I was well into the champagne. "You're not a failure either," I said.
"You're not a failure."
"I know that."
When the rum was brought out people cheered, even Robert Porterhouse perked up and after a few mai tais was performing handstands on the lawn. "My center of gravity is perfect," he told Leslie Pomeroy, and she pushed him over and stormed off into the bushes. Hot dogs were roasted. S'mores for dessert. Chuck Hubert somehow got ahold of the asbestos boots and started to do his zombie walk across the coals. There was laughter and applause. Tammy finally came back outside. She was smiling. "Oh, that Chuck," she said. Soon everyone was trying on the boots.
The party was still in swing when Zoe and I left. Most people had nannies or summer au pairs, while we were lowly with a baby-sitter. The drive home was quicker than the drive there. "How're your feet?" Zoe asked.
"I still can't believe you did that. Crazy."
I concentrated on the corridor of light and tried to keep the car within it.
"You of all people," she said.
"Did you have a good time?" I said.
"It was ridiculous."
"Yeah." I didn't even try to make her laugh.
When we got home the TV was on and Gwen was lying on the couch watching a late-night movie. She quickly got up. I wanted to help her with that head. "Hi," she said.
"Hey," Zoe said. She leaned against a chair. "Everything go all right?"
"No problem. A little tears in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but otherwise, fine."
I said, "The child catcher, right?"
I walked over to the bar and made myself a proper drink. "Poor Ray hates that creepy guy. 'Children,'" I called out in a shrill voice. "'Candies and sweets and lollipops.'"
"But he was good?" I asked.
Zoe sighed and then abruptly said, "Well, I guess Mr. Scott will drive you home." She made her way upstairs. "Sorry we're so late."
Gwen didn't live very far away.
"Did you have a good time?" she asked me.
"It was all right. Same old stuff."
The sporadic oncoming traffic lit the inside of the car, transforming Gwen's face into a second moon. And still wired from the party, I wanted to talk, wanted to tell her something wise, something profound, something that would help her better understand this awkward life. "You know my grandmother and grandfather used to live out on this island in Maine," I said. "A beautiful spot. Coastal. Islands all around. Really beautiful. And on one of the islands these adolescent kids would get dropped off for three days of survival. On their own, you know."
"Take a left," Gwen said.
The headlights, like prison searchlights, ran by a corner house.
"Anyway, it was some sort of Outward Bound program. Leadership skills and all that crap." I glanced at her quickly. "You know, where you're given something like a hook and fishing line and five matches and a knife. That's it. With that you have to make do."
"A right." She was carefully watching the street.
"Well, I used to visit my grandparents during the summer. It was great. Really nice."
"Sounds it," Gwen said.
"And my grandparents had this sailboat, and we sailed around quite a bit. Always sailing."
"Okay." Gwen sagged forward. I thought something might be wrong. A stomach cramp. A contraction. her hands rested on the dashboard. "You're going to want to take a right pretty soon. The next right. It pops out of nowhere."
"Got it," I said. "A right. Anyway, I remember the three of us making sandwiches in the morning, a ton of them, and we'd seal them in little plastic bags and pack them with us when we went sailing. And off we'd go. And we'd sail to this survival island, and my grandfather would sound the foghorn."
She said, "This right."
I made the turn. I wondered if the people inside the corner house could see the headlights dash across the walls, if they woke up frightened at the possibility of escaped convicts, or if maybe they dreamed about being in jail for an unknown crime they didn't commit. "Well, it was unreal," I said.
"The survival island. It was unreal. These kids would come out from the woods, just emerge from the woods all cut up and covered in bites. They looked miserable, almost beaten, you know, like they were in over their heads. But seeing us they'd smile and wave and wade into the water, and we'd toss out the sandwiches -- ham and cheese, turkey, roast beef, chicken salad, egg salad, tomato and cheese -- and soon these kids were having a picnic on the rocks."
"Okay, after this street take the next street left." Gwen pointed to the distant spot.
"Yep. On Musgrove."
"Musgrove. Left on Musgrove." I leaned my elbow out the window. In front of houses, sprinklers clicked across lawns -- my favorite sound -- and some of them swept the edge of the road like a scythe stretched to its limit. The car seemed suddenly loud, as if low beams and high beams screamed through the night, so I reached down and just turned the headlights off. There. Darkness was no longer cheated. The sky was everywhere, the stars visible, the space between objects flattened.
Gwen didn't say a word; she didn't move.
"A left?" I asked.
I stared out at the suburban silhouettes: a few porch lights glowing, a few blue shimmerings from bedroom and living-room televisions. Landmarks -- a comforting word -- landmarks to shore yourself against a mysterious world. And for a moment, things felt present. My friends were my friends and my wife was my wife and my feet did not burn.
I flipped down the indicator. It clicked along with the sprinklers outside.
Copyright © 1998 by David Gilbert