During the eight-mile walk from the field where his hitchhiked ride had left him, John discovered the leather of his work boots had stiffened to the toughness of plastic in the three years they'd spent in the property lockup. When he arrived after this painful hike at his ex-girlfriend's trailer, he planted himself on her porch—sitting on the top step and not in one of the wicker chairs, because he wasn't expected—and tried for several minutes by grinding with his thumbs to knead the soreness from his feet.
The storm door's hinges wailed, and with a start John craned around to see who'd found him. It was his boy, maybe eight or nine years old, standing disheveled and dirty and tanned in the doorway, barefoot, clothes a little ratty, but with the fleshiness of a healthy kid. When John saw this child of his body, he sized him up as he'd have sized up a man he didn't know. He found his son non-threatening, so he turned back to the waist-high weeds on the lawn. He didn't think much about it, but his feeling no anxiety in turning his back already made his son the closest friend he'd ever had.
The boy said, "Who're you?"
John craned around again to do his closest friend the courtesy of eye contact and said, "Doesn't matter. Your mom home?" before he turned back to the weeds.
"She's gone," said the boy. But he didn't trust the stranger, so he added the warning, "She'll be back any minute, though."
John smirked to himself at the kid's notion that Brandy's being on her way would stop him from doing anything he had a mind to. He said, "I'll wait. Anyone else livin' with you? Any man?"
"Just me and her."
The glass storm door shrieked shut. There was a pause as if the boy were deliberating, then he shut the plywood door. Then he locked it.
When John's anger at this slight subsided enough so he could see again, he found a cat on the step by his knee, staring at him, expectant of food or affection. He swatted it across the face, and it bounded away with a shriek.
When Brandy pulled into the overgrown driveway in her Ford maybe an hour later, she popped her head out the open window with the engine still sputtering and stared at John like he was a man from Mars. Then she killed the engine and climbed out and said without coming any nearer, "No shit. How in the hell are ya, John?" With that, she finally smiled and stepped a few paces toward him, but not close enough to touch.
Her smile drew a grin from John: to be greeted anywhere was water to his thirst. Without rising from her porch he said, "Shit, Brandy. How are ya?"
She took another step toward him, massive purse slung over one shoulder, face so frosted with makeup it looked like a cake. But she still looked good, John thought; she still had that tight little body he'd never quite gotten tired of, still had the smooth-looking skin under its thumbnail-thickness of paint, still had the long, pouring hair.
"I just thought I'd come by," said John. This was the most he could say. Some cell-deep inhibition prevented him from asking for favors.
She nodded without looking at him, and he knew she knew he needed a place to sleep. "Huh. Well you want to come in just for dinner, maybe?"
"Sure, Brandy," he said. "Thanks."
His acquiescence in the probationary term of the meal must have reassured her he wouldn't force himself on her hospitality, so she finally strode toward him and he rose to meet her. When they met, they embraced like men, thumping each other's backs in that awkward, congratulatory way. It was urgent she let him stay a while; he had nowhere else to go. The court had seized his trailer and his truck to pay the judgment in the wrongful death suit, and this woman he hadn't spoken to in years was the only person he had any tie to.
He backed off to look her over top to toe, his lust uncurling in him. "Shit, kid," he said in a burst of largesse, "you look all right."
She laughed without humor. "Hell, ya tomcat, look at you hornin' in already. Come on in. You seen Brendan?" who was their son.
"How'd he look?"
He stepped aside to let her cross the porch ahead of him because as a matter of general policy he didn't like having people at his back. "He looked all right," John allowed.
She opened the shrieking storm door, tried the knob on the plywood door, muttered, "The fuck's he lockin' it for?" and whaled on the wood with an impatient fist. While the kid unfastened the chain, she looked at John in a way that meant can I remind our son you're his father, and John looked back in a way that meant better not just now.
Inside she made an omelet, and they wolfed it together at the card table in her kitchen while the kid stared at the TV in the sitting room. The parents kept their talk light, because the kid would hear every word if his attention strayed from the cartoon. John asked her, "So're you a dental technician now or whatever you wanted to be?"
She sniffed with contempt at her old ambition and at all ambition. "Nope. But I'm a receptionist in a dentist's office three days a week, so you can't say I haven't come close."
He studied her, his helplessness so brazen in his face she looked away, maybe blushing under all the paint if she could still blush, and suckled at her 25-ounce Budweiser to break up the stillness between them. But they were closer to each other now that his look had made his need plain, the way two people are when one comes clean and the other says all right, I'll think it over. In this closeness she asked him in a lower voice the kid might not hear over the booming TV, "Anyway what the hell happened with you?"
He knew he had to tread carefully here. "I ran over that Fulton kid in a goddamn crosswalk," he said. "This fuckin' 16-year-old boy I never saw before in my life. Judge gave me five years for vehicular manslaughter. I did three. Got out just this mornin'."
For a minute she looked at him coldly because he'd killed someone, and he imagined how she'd throw him out if he ever confided in her that he'd run that kid down on purpose just because he was furious about other things. He imagined it, and it stung him in a way he wouldn't admit to himself, because it was truer than her actual ignorant welcoming. Then the coldness left her face and she just looked sorry.
John knew what she needed to hear, so he said of his prison term, "I damn sure deserved it." Then some words slipped out without his wanting them to, but they relieved a little of the pressure in him: "I should've gotten life."
She left him for a few minutes to put the kid to bed, and she returned to the kitchen with hesitant steps, still in her receptionist blouse and skirt. Then with the abruptness of sudden decision, she kneeled on the linoleum and blew him. He was spent within a minute, and she opened the dirt-crusted window to spit his juice into the weeds. She sat across from him again and said, "Figured you needed to get that outta your system. Now come on and stay the night, at least."
When John woke in Brandy's bed late the next morning, he could tell at once by the tedious silence of the double-wide trailer, she and the boy had trudged off to their respective drudgeries. He decided he would fill the lonely work- and school-day by presenting himself at Ducky's, a dive bar he'd frequented when he'd last lived with Brandy. This establishment occupied an isolated shack barely a mile from her trailer, so he could easily shuttle between the two haunts on foot. Maybe he'd ask for a job there: under the terms of his parole, he had seven days in which to find a paying job to occupy him for at least 30 hours a week.
With the seeming enthusiasm of a compass needle set free to find north, he yanked on his jeans, bomber jacket, and work boots with a series of haphazard jerks and then glided with growing certitude into the fluent, rolling strut with which he'd always commuted to Ducky's. It was maybe an hour before noon. Ducky's would already be watering its constituency of unemployable gregarious loafers who were glad to pay five times the store price for a beer in order not to be alone in their loneliness. A male patron could usually recruit a meth-addled teenager or a young single mother (likewise meth-addled) who would give head or tail in the restroom, ostensibly for ten or twenty bucks, but really just so someone would notice her. John had put Brandy and her bed to good use the previous night, but he was a man who liked variety, and he had $74 in his back pocket from his commissary account.
He stopped in Ducky's graveled parking lot to relieve his bladder on the lamppost, then resumed his strut until it took him to the familiar double-action door. Here he paused, troubled for an instant by a misgiving about the reception he was likely to get, being a child-killer fresh from prison. But he chided himself for overestimating the clientele's awareness of anything beyond their present drink, and he shoved the door back as if it were a man who'd tried to stop him.
The silence and the stillness inside were somehow dazzling, even after the calm of the roads and fields. A single fan spun overhead, its pull-chain dancing. Nothing else moved; every stool and chair was vacant. The pair of dirty windows gave the only light, and John wondered in a moment's trepidation if this place, his only refuge at this hour, had gone out of business somehow. If so, he'd be alone all day, and all day tomorrow and the next, with his thoughts devouring one another like starving rats.
To his vast relief, a slender woman of about 30 stepped out of the kitchen, apparently alerted by the thump of the door. She braced her elbows on the bar and waved for John to approach.
"I'll take a bourbon," he said, throwing a leg over the stool in front of her. "Where's Lucy?" who'd been the owner of Ducky's during his tenure as a regular.
The woman blinked. "Lucy died," she said. "My husband and I bought this from her nephew."
He looked around as if this cast a new light on the place. "So where the hell is everybody?" he asked.
The perplexity in her expression was subtle but clear. "Business has been slow..." she said cautiously.
A trimly bearded older man who was built like a jockey poked his head from behind the kitchen door, saying, "I thought I heard—" but seeing John he stopped and stared, so John wondered if this unknown man had somehow recognized him.
John decided to play dumb and asked the man, "Are you-all open, or what?"
"Are you from around here?"
The man didn't know John, then. With relief John said, "Not lately."
"He knew that Lucy woman," the woman told the older man.
"A long time ago," John qualified.
The man smiled and said, "You used to come here in those days?"
Despite the smile, John sensed the man disapproved of the way the place had been. "Once or twice."
The man nodded. "Well, it's different now."
John's heart sank, but he said, "I just want a bourbon. Hell, gimme the bottle."
The woman sold him a sealed bottle for only 12 dollars. John poured himself a shot in the tumbler she provided, drank it, poured another, drank, while the man and the woman looked on. Finally John said, "So you-all cleaned up Ducky's, huh? How long 'til you're bankrupt?"
The man gave an abrupt laugh. "We can carry on for quite a while, clean or unclean, rain or shine, hell or high water, even with this de facto boycott that our observance of a minimal standard of decency has brought down on our heads. You said you used to live around here, once upon a time?" and with this he cast an intelligent glance into John's eyes like a barbed hook into water.
Through a self-protecting impulse John looked away. "Once, yeah."
"Have you heard of Roy Hart?"
John rolled the name around in his mind for a moment. "Not that I remember. Who is he?"
"He's me," said the man. "Ecce homo. I was born within a mile of this spot, in a house that no longer exists, on a road that no longer exists, to parents who no longer exist, among neighbors whose descendants seem to be the largest group of people in the country who have never heard my name."
John had followed this with careful attention because he was still trying to judge whether this man was a threat. "You sayin' you're famous?"
The man laughed, clunked a second tumbler onto the bar, and with a wave at John's bottle said, "May I?"
"Be my guest," said John grudgingly.
The man poured himself a finger of bourbon but didn't immediately drink. "Lucy ran quite a place here," he said. "There were drugs, and underage girls, and prostitutes, and drugged underage prostitutes. I'm no puritan, as my wife can attest, but I wasn't comfortable continuing those traditions. I'm quite happy with the way things are, though: I came here to be alone, because that's what I remember of my childhood in this locale. I was always alone."
John glanced at the woman and wondered what she thought of her reduction to a nonentity.
With disquieting acuity Roy saw the glance and said, "This is my wife, Audrey. She's 27 years younger than I am. With her I'm alone—we're alone, or at least we're as much ourselves as people are when they're alone—but I'm not lonely. So I don't discount her; I count her as I count myself. Have you ever been in love like that?"
The comparative vigor of the older man's conversation had put John in a philosophical or at least a generalizing frame of mind, so he expressed himself in earnest: "I think love is when you don't get tired of fuckin' the same person after, say, a year. With most of 'em, you build up a tolerance after the first couple months."
If John had seen the slightest tincture of contempt in the older man's look, he would have smashed the bottle over his head, but all he saw were sadness and surprise.
"So what're you famous for?" John asked.
"Math and computer science."
"You can't get famous for math and computer science," John scoffed. "No money in it, either."
The man swallowed his finger of bourbon and gasped. "No money in it? I once won two prizes for solving a single math problem. One of the prizes came with a million bucks, and the other was worth nearly 800 grand."
"Shit," said John, grinning, "are you serious? For one math problem? Was Bill Gates's kid payin' you to do his homework or somethin'?"
Roy laughed and helped himself to another snort of bourbon. "It was a very hard problem! It took me three years!"
John charitably offered the hint, "If you were good at business, you coulda made way more'n that in three years."
Waving his arms at the empty bar Roy said, "But as you see, I'm not good at business, so I was thrown back on humbler gifts." Then he gulped his second shot.
By this time John had worked down a third of the bottle, and his proprietorship of the beverage had relaxed into expansive generosity. He hadn't tasted liquor in three years, and if he wasn't already too drunk to notice anything, he would have noticed his head was spinning. When Roy poured himself another finger, John crowed, "Help yourself, man!" and meant it.
Roy raised his glass to John in thanks, drank, and helped himself again.
"So where are you from?" Roy asked.
"The Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson," John answered without missing a beat.
And without dropping the rhythm Roy returned, "What were you there for?"
"I killed a kid."
"That's not something I hear every day."
"Hell, you prob'ly don't hear much, the way your business is boomin'!" John brayed at this incisive satire, then slapped his compotator on the shoulder to assure him it was all in good fun.
Roy frowned. "Do you have any family to go to? Friends? A job?"
John thrust his thumb against his chest and declared with a businesslike air, "You're lookin' at the whole goddamn corporation." He didn't see fit to mention the son who didn't know him or the woman he'd only seen once in three years.
"No one?" Roy asked.
John sneered and shook his head. "Anyway, fuck 'em."
"Fuck them," Roy repeated, raising his glass. Then a silence fell on the two men, and like the light of a street lamp, it allowed them to see each other. In that instant, the directness of Roy's sympathy inflicted a wound, and to John in his ensuing state of shock the barroom seemed very dark, very cold.
"You look young," Roy called down the cavern of John's mood. "But you've been released from prison already after killing a child. So it was accidental?"
John howled with a volley of hysterical laughter, and then he proclaimed at the top of his lungs—just as if he were regaling a throng of admirers—"They sure as shit thought it was! But I killed that fuckin' kid on purpose!"
And with that he collapsed to the floor in a sobbing, shuddering heap.
On the day John ran over the kid, he'd just been fired from another job. Edgar, who was Brandy's older brother as well as John's then-employer and benefactor, had summoned the father of his nephew to the large broom closet he called an office for one of those come-to-Jesus lectures John had weathered from persons in authority since his earliest childhood. Like a stone by the sea, John endured these surges with a rough, insensate dumbness that gave no hint of the erosion of substance they cost him.
The metal desk nearly filled the room. The desktop, the filing cabinet, and most of the floor were overbuilt with tall, uneven towers of paper—receipts and invoices and other detritus of business Edgar didn't have the clerkish aptitude to assimilate in an orderly way. Edgar was a small man with a perpetual five-o'clock shadow, and when John sauntered into the closet-office, the bewhiskered elf was seated behind his desk with a brisk and princely poise—the little man had a way of seeming brisk even when he sat still, by assuming tense postures suggesting he'd presently spring into a flurry of officiousness. He wore a baseball cap with a logo reading "Ed's Plumbing." Whenever John looked at that logo, he suffered a queasy sense his employer had burned through his entire ration of originality in christening his business with that name.
John closed the door behind him, shutting himself in with the weasel, and braced himself for a lot of tootling and bluster.
"This is it," said Edgar summarily. From beneath his desk he produced a cap identical to his own, except the brim wasn't curved yet, and he tossed this onto the pile of papers nearest to John. "I'm tired of arguing about it. You put on that hat right now, or you give me your keys."
The keys in question were to the company van John drove when he went out on errands to replace toilet flaps and tighten faucets and perform the few other rudimentary chores Edgar had trained him to do. By handing over this badge of his office, John would signify he had resigned his position at Ed's Plumbing.
After watching John deliberate for perhaps 30 seconds, Edgar said, "I don't understand why you won't wear the hat. You work here. Haven't you worn a uniform before? I don't ask you to wear a whole uniform—just the hat, so people know you work here. It's advertisement."
John's reasons for resisting the hat were obscure even to himself, but after careful consideration, he reaffirmed his certainty he could not wear it. He felt a compulsion to justify himself, though, so he set out to rationalize his obstinacy in the Socratic manner: "You really can't understand why I won't wear your goddamn hat, can you." It was a question, but John had inflected it as a declarative sentence because this seemed less deferent.
Edgar shook his head slowly, like a philosopher gazing on folly. "I'm afraid I can't, John. Not when it's gonna cost you your job."
This was all the stimulus of opposition John had needed, so he exploded, "You really can't understand why I wouldn't wanna turn my fuckin' forehead into a billboard for someone else's business?"
Edgar said, "Well in a way it's your business, too, John, since you work here."
He said this in such a level, imperturbable tone, it registered with John in an unsettling way: Edgar had spoken not like someone with a personal stake, but like a representative of the whole shit-eating community. So John took a step toward Edgar, his rage white-hot, hating not just the plumber but the whole tribe who backed him. His advance in the tiny room brought his thighs against the edge of the desk, and he braced his fists on piles of papers in order to loom over his oppressor.
Edgar raised his own open hands like someone placating a crank. "Settle down, John. This ain't a playground."
The very reasonableness of it made John furious, and he lunged to one side as if he were about to round the desk.
Edgar scooted away in his swivel chair so its back thumped the wall. "Look at yourself," he said. "What the hell are ya doin'? Do you wanna get arrested? Is that where you wanna take this?"
That a man could fail to understand why a harassed man would want to fight, and that a man would avoid a fight for the sake of some selfish long-term interest—it sickened and crazed John. He brought his fist down on the stack of papers like an ape banging the floor of its cage.
Edgar flinched and cried out, "I don't get you, man! Why the hell won't you wear the goddamn hat?"
"Cause you're a goddamn cocksucker!" by which John meant the little man was weak and a kiss-ass and a goody-good jerk-off who gave a little something to charity each Christmas and hired an accountant for a week every year to make sure his books were straight—a pussy and a chickenshit, if John had ransacked his vocabulary to further clarify the charge—and he bridled at the subordination to this weakling that wearing the hat would imply.
Edgar considered the insult for a moment as if he saw all the way to the bottom of it and it saddened him—not for his own sake, but because he was a missionary at this moment, and he'd realized the savage would never submit to conversion.
"I don't get you, man," he repeated. "Gimme your keys, and get outta here. I only hired you so you could help Brandy with Brendan's expenses. I figured you could learn enough to make yourself useful. But you are one dumb fuck."
John deposited his van keys on the desk with a negligent toss and strode from the office, inflated with a potent sense he was depriving Ed's Plumbing of his valuable services in perpetuity. But by the time he reached his pickup in the parking lot, his triumph had soured somewhat. Not only did Edgar refuse to acknowledge John's superiority as measured by any reputable standard of manliness, the little shit had dismissed him as a buffoon. For an instant the erstwhile replacer of toilet flaps had the feeling he'd just been woken from the absolute certainty of a vivid dream into the blur of a predawn room: he knew neither where he was nor what he was, and he was afraid. He roared out of the parking lot with his tires hissing in the dust, pounding the steering wheel with one fist, too angry to switch on the radio, feeling as if he were a very small child playing some involving little game and his father had snuck up and slapped him, just because he looked happy.
"Hello, Parole Officer Bochs? Yes, my name is Roy Hart. I'm here with my employee, John, um... Cummings. Yes. Yes, that's absolutely right. He gave me your card, and he's asked me to help him get things off the ground with you, so... By the way, is that actually your name and title? P.O. Bochs? How interesting. In any case, I'd like to set up an appointment for John to come in and meet with you next week, and I'd also like to verify for you I've given him employment here in my, um, restaurant. Yes. Well, yes, of course, but you see John has an awful case of laryngitis. No, of course I don't mind. Me? Well I'm a retired professor. Mm-hm. Yes. And my name again is Roy Hart: that's Hart without an 'e.' All right, very well, I'll put him on." Roy held the phone away from the trim gray bristles on his cheek and called to the heap on the floor, "John? P.O. Bochs here would like to speak with you for a moment." Roy crossed to the heap, estimated where the ear might be, and presented his phone to the likeliest aperture.
"Ungh-hungh," John croaked in a way that was somehow affirmative. "Gugh. Ugh-huh. Yeah, J-John C-Cummings. Ungh."
"So, yes," said Roy, resuming his stint as the ex-convict's spokesman. "He'll be working here with me. Yes, at least 30 hours a week. Oh, say... ten dollars an hour? Does that sound fair? Fine, fine. Oh, he'll be... cleaning up the place. You know: toilets, floors, dishes. Yes, a restaurant. Well, more of a bar, really. Mm-hm. Yes. Yes, of course I'll let him know. No no, that's fine, I'm sure his schedule is quite open, and that appointment will be fine. Thank you."
When Roy disconnected the call, he turned to find his wife glaring at him with a laser-like beam of displeasure. "Oh, he'll be fine," Roy answered her implied objections, which were legion. "He doesn't even have to come in. Even if he does drop by on occasion, he'll be no more trouble than a dog. But of course he's not a dog; quite the contrary. I've never seen a conscience snap a man in two like that before."
The childhood memory that first prompted Roy to return to the poor rural county where he'd served out his childhood was of the morning when the local library finally managed to procure him a two-volume edition of Euler's Letters to a German Princess. The hour when he rescued those volumes from the shack where the town sequestered its books had begun the most bittersweet day of his life.
He was 11 years old and already in the eighth grade. His dazzling facility at learning anything that could be printed in a book had allowed him to skip two grades. His present homeroom teacher had told him he might have leapfrogged another grade or two if scholastic achievement were the only criterion, but his wardens took a responsible interest in his social development and considered that placing him with students three or four years his senior would make him even more of a freak to his classmates.
On the day when he picked up the volumes for which he'd been petitioning the librarian for almost five months—the great mathematician Leonhard Euler's 234 letters to an adolescent girl explaining more or less the sum of scientific knowledge as of the year 1760—he cut classes for the first time in his life to perch on a hillock by the boundary of the school grounds and pick his way through this rich growth of wisdom word by word, with such absolute attention, when an older boy jeered at him he didn't notice, not until the thug cuffed him on the ear. There was nothing unusual in this; his classmates hated him with the malignancy robust boys direct toward an uppity runt.
He responded to the unprovoked blow only by looking the perpetrator in the eye and saying, "Go away, or I'll burn down your house." Duly, the older boy went. Roy could often repel these forays into his privacy: he was so strange to his classmates, they thought he must be capable of anything. And maybe he was. When he grew furious enough, he thought he might even be capable of murder, and he'd wonder what punishment or stigma could deter a boy whose nature already incurred both.
Roy sat on the hillock for the rest of that day with those volumes of Euler (a name he still pronounced in his head as "You-ler," because no one he knew could tell him to say it as "Oiler"). Until now he'd only read textbooks by men who wrote nothing but textbooks, and trying to see into science through that wretched medium was like trying to feel a Beethoven symphony by listening to a tone-deaf person hum it. Here in these letters was the crystal-clarity of an originator. This 11-year-old boy felt so distinct from the people around him, and he slid so easily into Euler's thoughts and words, that his lifelong hunger after people of his own kind was momentarily appeased, and this kid who was humble enough to suppose his understanding didn't surpass that of an unremarkable 18th-century schoolchild had the towering but entirely unconscious arrogance to imagine Leonhard Euler was his intellectual kin. There were tears in his eyes from time to time as he nursed himself on the lively explanations of everything from the nature of space to the nature of music, and he read until evening blotted the words. These were the happiest hours of his life, because they showed him where he had to go—but they were piercingly bitter, too, because they intimated to him he would never succeed in feeling at home here, among the only people he knew.
Thirty-three years later John Cummings spent an occasional afternoon on that same hillock, being a student in the same school his by-then-quite-illustrious predecessor had suffered through, but being at the same time a 16-year-old delinquent who was repeating the eighth grade for the second time. His teachers despaired: the problem was not with his intelligence, which seemed average or a little above. But when his wardens tried to force him to learn anything, he lashed out with astonishing violence, with a quick, precise malice delivering its sting to the victim's most sensitive nerve. It was suspected, for example, he was responsible for the unaccountable fire that had razed the family home of a classmate the previous year: the house had been designated a heritage site by the county commissioners and had been in the family for five generations, and it had been cluttered with heirlooms, priceless to the family and otherwise valuable as relics of local history. Then one morning it was a black, smoldering foundation pit; a disabled grandmother had been carried from the conflagration at the last possible instant by her burned and hacking son, unconscious from smoke inhalation. Everyone guessed who had done it, and no one had seen anything like it before.
This reprobate was suffered by the community as a sort of providential scourge, with the understanding that in due course he would be swept into prison for one or another of his casual and almost daily crimes; it was only hoped incarceration would end his tin-pot reign of terror before he killed someone. Meanwhile he bided his time in a fog of drugs and drink, rutting on a brood of girls of his own caste, never rearing up out of the muck to drag down a young woman from a decent family. His own family consisted of a mother who'd divorced the drunken, fist-happy father and moved in with the drunken, fist-happy uncle; at night their neighbors heard them shrieking at one another. The only offense for which John was ever punished at home was of pilfering the output of his uncle's backyard distillery, a transgression he committed daily. Sometimes when he'd appropriated a large enough cache, he'd conscript a classmate or two to join him in a corner of the school grounds and swill the awful rotgut for an hour.
One of his favorite places to booze during school was the little hillock where a genius he'd never heard of had discovered the spiritual family he'd half-consciously been seeking all his life were the stars in the intellectual heavens above him. Whereas John was content with the hillock: he'd parade on that mound like a cock on a dunghill, crowing at his comrades or pecking at his consorts, sharing nothing with the genius but absolute solitude, which in John's case was imposed by his otherworldly exuberance, his spontaneous discharges of rage, his booming obscene speech, his indefatigable lust, and the silver thread of madness running through the weave of his character, always catching the eye. He lived among people like a crazed animal, ranting and spitting, flinging out fists, an incomprehensible recusant from every possible communion, deranged past all reasoning by some intolerable pain. For all his furious activity on the hillock on those drunken afternoons, he was like a corpse from which the spirit had moved on.
Audrey clattered at her keyboard with the briskness of ambition. On the bar at one hand, she had an open math journal, and at the other hand, she had a laptop running the older version of Mathematica she preferred. While she clickety-clicked, Roy flipped a page in his moribund volume of Euler's Letters to a German Princess. He relished the feel of the thick, brittle, mildewed paper against his fingers. It was the texture of nostalgia. For most of the morning, husband and wife were companionably silent, except for the flap of Roy's nostalgic pages and the clatter of Audrey's ambitious keyboard.
Audrey saw the old book in his hand and said, "I hate to see you wasting time on that. You can do so much more."
He smiled, flattered his wife considered his engagement in anything but active mathematical research to be a waste of communal resource. He peered at her through his readers and said, "How are you doing with yours?"
She flung up her hands. "It's frustrating." She turned to her machine and gestured at something on its screen. "I have an intuition the analogue to Frobenius is valid, but it's... it doesn't come out."
"Dig into it," he exhorted her. She was trying to contribute a small but important step toward a solution of the most prestigious open problem in number theory. He encouraged her because he believed she could do it.
For a moment they took comfort in looking at each other. Then she rose from her chair at the bar and whisked in her sandals to the booth where he was reclining to run her fingers through his hair with tender strokes. "Tonight is our check-in," she said.
His mood darkened. "Well," he huffed.
"I have a good feeling about this month."
His mood lightened again. He had great faith in her intuitions. But despite his faith, he groused, "If it doesn't come out this time we might consider giving up. I'm 57 years old. After ten months of gestation and the usual 22 to 26 years of domestication, I'd be, um—" He had trouble focusing even on basic arithmetic when he discussed anything of emotional import. "I'd be in my 80s by the time any child we might have conceived this month escaped from graduate school. Is that really fair, to him or her? To have a father so decrepit? So if tonight's test doesn't show we've finally managed the feat, maybe we should round out our family with a goldfish."
She relieved him of his book and set it face-down on the table, then she gathered herself into his lap, so the two of them fit very awkwardly between the table and the back of the booth seat. "I suppose you'll want to be celibate then," she said.
He laughed. "Celibate? God, woman, I'd rather give up water. Celibate. Pshaw."
"So your body still wants our child, even if you don't. Your body is wiser than you are."
He looked at her, amused and perplexed. "How is it wise to want a child?"
"We're essentially creative people, the two of us, and we're also essentially family people. Having and raising a child will make our family an outlet for our creativity, and it will make our creativity an expression of our family feelings. Childrearing will be for us what painting is to painters." With this she lifted up his book and closed it, knowing he never paid attention to which page he was on and would postpone the chore of finding his place again. She tossed the book disdainfully down on the tabletop. "This book didn't save you from your childhood. Your work did. Do your work. I helped when I came along, and our child will help again. So look forward to the monthly ritual of the home-pregnancy test, although I have a very definite feeling this will be the one."
She returned to her chair, and with a miserable sigh Roy flung open the notebook in which he'd been scribbling during the three months they'd spent in this ridiculous retreat. He scanned his scrawled notes, but on the first pass nothing caught his eye. Then on a more careful perusal, he noticed something. It was a conjecture he'd been tinkering with the previous night—an intricate thing, clock-like with its many parts, and now it intrigued him again. He felt himself being pulled into it, but at the last instant, he resisted. Sometimes this work was like a dream, and you were utterly alone. He'd noticed this more and more: when he was sucked into his silent work, he missed his wife.
To please her, though, he forced himself into the seething sleep of concentration, and for the next hour there was nothing in the bar but the rattle of her keyboard and the scratch of his pen. But a little after noon, the door to the parking lot boomed open with a sound that might have been the crack of doom, for the start it gave the mathematicians—but the bang of the door was nothing to the cacophony John made by merely striding to the bar, his booted feet clunking, his arms waving, his voice blaring with vulgarities eventually resolving themselves into a request for the remainder of the bottle he'd abandoned there after his collapse the day before. Then with all the poetry his soul could muster, the Visigoth bellowed to the fastidious couple, "I gotta take a shit. Is the men's room decent?"
Roy and Audrey both nodded, and the boor stormed away to pollute the amenities.
Audrey gave a sigh that could have leveled Carthage and hissed, "Why did you hire that lunatic?"
By now Roy had recovered somewhat from the invasion. "I feel a kinship with him."
This scandalized Audrey so sharply, she whirled in her chair to stare at her husband. "Why?"
Roy shrugged. "He's like me. Except he has no way out."
The choke and gargle of the toilet, then the bang of the bathroom door as John came thundering out.
"You didn't wash your hands," said Audrey without looking at him.
"Wash your hands!" Audrey cried.
"Oh, shit, 'scuse me," muttered the blunderer as he scuttled back to the restroom to clean himself.
Roy set John's half-full bottle of bourbon firmly on the bar.
Presently John erupted from the restroom with a spring in his stride, flapping his hands to air-dry them, apparently unaware of the significance of the paper-towel dispenser. As he came barreling toward the bar, he announced at the top of his voice, "I slept in a goddamn ditch last night."
"Is there really no one who'll be worried about you?" Roy asked.
John accepted a tumbler from Roy and revolved it in a calloused hand. He wasn't a barrel-chested or a broad-shouldered man, but his big hands and big feet suggested to Roy he was the son of generations of forgotten toilers, as Roy was himself.
"No one gives a shit," John said.
Early in the morning, late at night—at an hour when it was both morning and night—John sat on the edge of the cot in the kitchen of Roy and Audrey's bar and smoked his umpteenth cigarette, watching the smoke aspire toward the ceiling fan and disperse before it got there. He couldn't go back to Brandy and the kid. It didn't feel right. No place felt right except this one. This was the only place where anyone knew him and still let him come back.
He was alone in the building. After the old man had secretly slipped John the key and made a show of sending him away, he and his young wife had gone home, and John had followed up the surreptitious invitation by letting himself back in. Presumably he should let himself out in the morning in advance of the opening hour. The couple's reason for manning their establishment every day when they anticipated no business was a profound mystery to this man who did nothing without the expectation of an immediate payoff. Roy had said something about the possibility of interruption serving as a stimulus to concentration, and John had thought, yeah, whatever.
He brought the throbbing cherry of his cigarette within a centimeter of his wrist. The small reddish spiraling hairs nearest to it were erased, and the skin stung. He'd planned to crush the ember into his palm, but the whiff from the burned hairs deterred him. His delicacy made him furious, and he sprang from the creaking cot and rampaged from the kitchen to the bar, flinging his arms about in a wild attempt to dissipate his agitation, blistering the air with hideous phrases directed at no one or at anyone—Shove a meat hook up your cunt; Carve your fuckin balls off—and stamping his big, booted feet.
With a sudden access of purpose he strode to the men's room, punted the door, slapped the tiled wall twice for the switch, then paced beneath the buzzing lights in front of the metal mirror, hissing and growling to himself, terrible, breaking on the wheel of being John Cummings. He whirled on the mirror, and at the sight of his narrow face with its arrogant contours, he punched himself twice in the cheek. The blows blurred his vision, and their meat-slapping sound cut through the Beelzebub-drone of the lights. He whined in his throat, no more aware of his noises than a panicked animal would be, and he had no idea what had put him in this passion, only a feeling as if he were awake while a scalpel laid open his skin and pointed instruments pricked and poked inside of him. He'd told Roy and Audrey he'd killed that kid on purpose, and Roy had hired him to work here. He'd shown himself and he'd been seen, and yet the old man had invited him back. It was like being flayed alive, but it was also ecstatic, and he couldn't take it.
He felt as if he were about to give birth to something larger than himself. The thing he would give birth to was his sense of how it was when he ran over that kid. It had been first thing in the morning, right after Edgar had fired him. He'd shot out of the parking lot in his tank of a pickup with the bald tires hissing in the dust, and when he'd hit the blacktopped street, the truck had hopped on its shocks with the force of its bound from the curb. What made the memory of it vivid was that as he'd pounced from the parking lot in his juggernaut of a truck, he'd been making the same strained, strangled noises in his throat that he was making in the bathroom now. These stifled shrieks were a line through his life, threading together the instants when some terrible exertion of his feelings had made him completely unselfconscious—these flashes of beatitude achieved under some lash or other. So he felt himself at the reins of that stampeding pickup, launching himself into the street, tearing over the tar, bull-proud and hornet-mad, pricked to a frenzy by the spines of a torture device that had always surrounded him: the sentiments of everyone, and the pricking, poking, prodding of a spectrum of punishments, from sniffs of disapproval to Edgar's casting him out of a job... these stinging correctives of whatever was innately wrong with him, and behind them all the weight of the conviction—which he shared—that something was innately wrong with him.
When a man is hated for something that comes naturally to him, that thing becomes his soul and truth, because why else would it come to him when it only makes him hated? And the more it becomes his truth, the louder he'll say it, and the more he'll be hated for it, and the more it will become his truth. So John went tearing toward the nearest traffic light with a lifetime of malevolent impulses seething in him, each of them as precious to him as his name. There were two lanes on his side of the street. A car had stopped at the red light in one. A kid was crossing the street in front of the car, about to pass into the part of the crosswalk bounding the open lane. The kid was swaggering, wearing earbuds, making graceful little motions with his hands that might have been reactions to his music. John was tearing toward the traffic light and was about to stamp down on the brake pedal when the kid walked from in front of the stopped car into the range of the open lane, and it struck John that for this kid to be so perfectly at ease in the world, he would have to be very much loved.
In the bathroom he punched the metal mirror but barely dinged it, though he split open a knuckle. He stormed into the barroom with his arms flailing again in the bizarre way they had when he was in one of his fits, and he put his boot through the bar just above the foot rail and then flung his fists down on the seat of a stool before embracing the thing and trying with all his futile strength to uproot it from the floor. Failing at this, he kicked another hole in the bar. Then he rounded the counter and thrashed among its accoutrements until he came across a lighter, at which prompting he tore off his t-shirt and set fire to it, then flung it onto the pile of newspapers in the corner, where the chuckling flame soon mounted to a proper, flapping blaze. He had no idea what he was doing, but at the same time he fully intended to burn with the place, like a sacrifice offered in penitence for a crime that was more than the man and therefore needed the whole man along with his agony to atone for it. He felt at this moment he hadn't meant to run over that kid, or at least that something essential in him hadn't wanted to, and he grasped after this vanishingly fine thread of conscience as if with infinitely clumsy fingers. He'd held it for a moment for the first time in his life when he'd fallen to the floor in front of the old man and his wife, and he felt if he burned now, he would seize it forever.
It all made sense. But the fire was hot and the smoke was harsh, and conscience was a distant light but fire was immediate agony, so with an inspiration of panic, he threw one hairy arm across his mouth and nose and charged with his eyes closed against the scorching smoke into the double-action door, which his weight flung wide, and he staggered shirtless in his boots into the parking lot, coughing and with ashy sweat blackening his face. When he was certain he was going to live, he felt an awful sense of loss, but then he buckled at the waist with a high-pitched guffaw, and he stooped in the parking lot with one hand pointing at the building, shrieking like an ape at this bonfire he'd made of his benefactor's business. The fire was throwing its throbbing light through the windows and across the gravel, and he was cackling at how brilliantly crazy he was.
By then he could hear the fire, which was continuing to rise. From out here its sound was like the crash and wash of pouring gravel. It struck him that he'd just lit up the only place where he was known and welcome, and he began to pace in the parking lot and rant again, his mirth forgotten, because he'd burned his home. When the fire soaked through the roof, he fell to his knees on the hard rutted ground and wished he had the balls to go back in.
While the bar burned, Roy stood in the schoolyard on his hillock, even happier than he'd been the last time he'd visited this place, so many years before. He and Audrey had learned a few hours ago from their monthly home pregnancy test that after two years of trying, they were finally going to have a child. When the blue cross appeared on the test strip, Roy knew he'd never had a family worthy of the name, but he had one now.
After Audrey fell into a smiling sleep, Roy left her a note and went on an errand he'd promised himself he'd make if tonight's news ever came: he found his old school with the GPS in his convertible coupe, and then he sought out his hillock by the light of his phone. When he'd climbed in two strides to the little mound's summit, he felt like a strayed ghost come home to its body.
On his long-ago last visit to this place, when the relief with which he'd sampled Euler's thoughts first hinted to him he could start a new life on the heights, he'd gladly left behind the boy he'd been, the boy who was perpetually pricked by futile longings—who in the loveless, numbing poverty of his house had wanted an imagined warmth of home and family, and who in the friendless brutality of his school had wanted a loving companion. Now after 46 years, he returned to that boy bearing gifts—the home, the family, the companionship the latter had been famished for. As he stood on this spot where they'd parted and imagined himself bestowing on that hopeless child all the spoils of his distant conquests, he felt like a father lifting up his newborn son, cradling a helpless being whom he loved more than he loved his present self.
It was during this reunion with his humblest wishes that Roy scanned the horizon and picked out the telltale twinkling in the direction of his bar. He concluded at once that the half-mad transient he'd temporarily billeted there had accidentally set fire to the place. On any other night, Roy would have called 911. Not tonight: whatever the man had done to the bar, he was on parole, and any suspicion of mischief would boomerang him back into prison. In any case the fire was a windfall to Roy, because now the bar would burn, and he'd be free of that stupid, artificial tie to the setting of the worst years of his life. Just now he'd ended the only real tie, when he'd gathered up the longings he'd laid down here.
When the old man arrived at the burning bar and sprang out of his coupe to stride the few remaining steps to John, the latter realized he was going to kill the poor old fucker. He didn't decide this; it came to him. Not through calculation, although as he began to rationalize his instinct it seemed if he let the old man live, he'd certainly go back to prison for burning the bar, whereas if he thumped his patron on the head once and chucked him into the blaze, he had a pretty good chance of never even being questioned, because no one else knew he'd been staying here. It wasn't what he wanted; in fact the misery of it oppressed him. He liked the old man and was grateful to him. But he knew he was going to kill him because he'd felt just like this when he'd run over that kid: there was a surging in his limbs, a building charge, and he had to get out of its way.
He would hold it for as long as he could.
"What happened here?" Roy asked when he'd come close enough to be heard above the rush and crackle.
John could have told him the truth because it didn't matter anymore, but from habit he said, "I don't know."
Roy looked skeptical. "Were you asleep?"
"I don't know." Bad people learned this from a young age: they don't remember, they don't know—it was safer than trying to juggle the apparent facts into the pattern of innocence. John went on to stamp his testimony with the seal of iteration. "I don't know what did this."
Any minute now he'd have to let it happen.
Roy cast a final wry look at the fire and then fixed his attention on John. "Where will you stay now?"
John shrugged. This time he really didn't know.
"When we first met," said Roy, "had you just gotten out of prison that morning?"
A profession of ignorance on this point would be incredible, so John muttered grudgingly, "No."
"Where did you sleep the night before?"
John might have said he'd slept in a ditch or a motel but it didn't occur to him. "A friend's place."
"Let me take you there, then."
John looked at his feet. He figured he'd punch the old man in the eye or the temple, a good solid knock to put him out. His friend would neither struggle nor suffer.
Very, very soon... it was almost beginning to hurt, it was pressing so hard to pass through.
"I think we're alike," said the old man.
John took note. He wasn't a person to whom people readily likened themselves.
"Except you fell out through the bottom," said the old man, "and I rose out through the top. But the middle, where everyone else is—neither of us has ever been able to stay there with any comfort."
John received this explanation of himself uncritically, and even with a pang of thanks—to be recognized was rare, and to meet with acceptance unheard of. As he balled his right hand into a fist as tough as stone, he felt a tingling in his eyes. He'd never have another friend as good as this. But the thing was coming, and he couldn't hold it anymore.
With infinite relief he noticed Roy glancing at his fist and giving an almost imperceptible start—it was the observation of an instant, but it opened the possibility they would be saved. John hefted his fist as if it were a weapon to give Roy a second and more definite warning—he felt now that he and Roy were allied in trying to hold back this thing or find some way for it to blow harmlessly by—and when he finally fired the fist into Roy's forehead he did so with the slightest hesitation in his movement, to give the old man yet another chance.
Roy just had time to flinch, but it saved him. He caught the punch after its force had peaked, and its impact threw him to the ground, but he remained conscious. Now everything depended on the old man's response. Fear or anger would provoke the thing, and John would be constrained to let it finish, but if Roy reacted in some other way John couldn't quite conceive of, he might rescue them both.
The old man touched his fingers to the sore place by his temple and said calmly, "You need a home, John. I know what it's like to need a home."
Roy's readiness to think of John's interests even while John attacked him was perhaps the only form of selflessness the murderer could have recognized, and it moved something in him. He stood over the old man with his fist still clenched and struggled in himself.
"Home is where they know the worst and still want you back," Roy called up to him over the snap and purl of the fire. "This was your home," and he nodded toward the burning bar. "You need a new home now. Does the friend you stayed with two nights ago know you've killed a child on purpose?"
Imperceptibly John found himself becoming interested in the line of questioning, so his preoccupation with his violence correspondingly eased. "No," he said.
"Is this friend a man or a woman?" Roy was lying on his back, propped up on his elbows, with one leg stretched out and the other bent at the knee.
John could feel the heat of the fire at his back. "A woman."
Roy smiled, and this also struck John as somehow selfless, though what he consciously felt was the old man was tough and unafraid. He respected this and in some sense even loved it, without questioning how mere toughness could elicit anything like love. "Is this a woman you've been romantically involved with?"
John nodded. The burning at his back was strong and terrible, but it seemed the violence was going out of him and into it.
"Well,that's wonderful," said Roy. "That's a start. Is there any chance of renewing your attachment to her?"
John considered for a moment and then shrugged, thinking a blow job and a couple of fucks over one night probably didn't signify any sort of commitment. But he said without seeing any particular importance in what he was saying, "She has my kid."
With this Roy hefted himself to a sitting position and folded his hands together in front of him. "You have a child? How old? Boy or girl? What's its name?"
"His name's Brendan," John said, because this was the extent of his information about his son.
Roy's eyes softened. "You should go back there," said Roy. "You should make that your home. It has everything a man could want in a home: a woman and a child. All you need now is for them to know you, and there will be a place for you. Just one place, mind you. You can't expect the same mercy everywhere, after what you've done. But even if it seems confining, one place is better than no place, isn't it?"
John grunted. "Sounds like prison."
Roy shook his head. "More of a fallout shelter, if you think about it: the one place in the world you haven't absolutely poisoned for yourself."
The roof of the bar caved in then.
Roy waited in the road in front of Brandy's trailer with the engine running while John kicked his way through the weeds, climbed the steps, and hesitated in the porch lamp's light.
After a moment Roy honked his horn.
John gave a start and looked around his feet as if he might have stepped on an alarm. As he looked, he saw a cat waiting. He remembered the animal. He'd cuffed it the day he'd arrived here from prison. Now he felt no urge to kick it, though the idea of petting it didn't occur to him, either.
The cat sauntered away, and John looked at Brandy's front door as if it were a wrathful face. A light came on in the sitting room, glowing through the curtains. Roy's honk must have woken her.
John knocked exactly once.
She opened the door. She was wearing a white teeshirt with holes in it and deodorant stains in the armpits and a pair of athletic shorts. John remembered why he was here, and he looked away with a feeling of shame he didn't know how to identify.
"Where the fuck've you been?" she snapped in a whip-stroke of bitterness. "You think you can just drop in and fuck me one night and then head off down the road without sayin' a word, then just show up again like this?"
John shuffled his feet. He couldn't admit to himself he was afraid of this little woman.
"I went out lookin' for a job and I ran into a friend—a man friend—" and he started to exhale the lies, easy as breathing. He stopped himself, then quietly said something that to the two of them was like a trumpet call: "Sorry."
She looked away because she didn't want to seem too easy on him, but he knew she knew this was the first time he'd ever apologized to her.
He asked, "Can I come in and talk for a minute? Then you can kick me right back out if you want."
She craned to look past him. "Who's that?"
"It's that old guy who owns Ducky's now."
"The hell's he doin' here?"
John shrugged. "We kinda became friends."
She looked impressed, and he figured she'd heard some rumor of the old man's status in the world. "Nice car," was all she said, but she opened the wailing storm door to admit him.
They faced each other just inside the door, her lower lip pouted with sullen determination. He said, "I was afraid to come back here because—" lying again. He stopped himself, made another effort: "I didn't want to come back here because there's somethin' you don't know about me."
She glared at him as if she had him at pistol-point and was only waiting for the word to shoot.
"You know kid I ran over?" he said. "I did it on purpose. I did it on purpose, Brandy." And then a third time, as if he couldn't get over the novelty of saying it: "I did it on purpose."
Her face showed not the slightest perceptible change.
"And I burned down Ducky's tonight," he said, the faucet of confession gushing freely now. "I told the old man I killed that kid on purpose and he let me sleep there and I burned it down cause I figured I could burn up with it. But I ran out, Brandy, cause it was too fuckin' hot. Then the old man showed up outta nowhere and I was gonna kill him. I would have. He's the one that stopped it. I'm tellin you, Brandy... fuck!"
She wasn't looking at him anymore. She was thinking. Her thinking brought her to the point: "Why'd you do all that, John?"
"I don't know!" he shrieked, and he was dimly aware the boy must be awake by now, trembling in his bed. "Everybody wants to tell the whole goddamn world how they feel, don't they? That's all I was doin', was paintin' everyone a fuckin' picture. People don't like it?" By now he'd worked himself to such a pitch of indignation, he was flailing his arms and snarling again, as when he'd started the fire in the bar. "They don't like it? Well then fuckin' give me somethin' else to say!"
He came very close to punctuating this demand by punching Brandy in the face—not because she'd provoked him in any way, but because he'd touched on a critical point in his plea, and he wanted to thump the podium for emphasis. Instead, though, he withdrew to a little remove from himself, and from there he saw Brandy would have to be insane to take him in tonight or any other night before he'd come a long way toward her. But he remembered how she'd let him in two nights ago after she'd seen his little hiccup of remorse, and he had a saving intuition he might get in again, if he could take the pressure that had burst him in front of the old man and his wife and learn to let it out like breath, like words.
All this time—it had been perhaps ten minutes since John had walked to his girlfriend's door—Roy sat in the car with the engine running, watching the insects swirl in his high-beams. He wondered if John had intended to kill him outside the bar tonight, and if John had started the fire on purpose. He wanted to believe the worst: it fashioned John into a sharper symbol of the part of Roy that had always lurked outdoors. He wasn't angry with the man, though; he'd survived, and his entanglement with that ridiculous bar was conveniently ended.
Just then the door to the woman's house opened. John came slouching out, and for an instant Roy saw the woman silhouetted in the light. The door closed. Roy thought John would swagger to the car to say the matter was settled and that Roy should go, but instead the man planted his seat on the lowest porch step with the ponderousness of someone who anticipated a long vigil.
Roy rolled down his window and gestured with his arm in a questioning way, like an exaggerated shrug. He watched his protégé in the porch lamp's light as John shook his head slowly and negatively: the woman would not take him in.
The man was a murderer. He'd burned down the bar. And Roy's young wife was pregnant. He could not take this barbarian into his home. But nevertheless he would. If John had to give up on his own people, then Roy would continue to shelter him. He would, because all Roy had done with his life was the achievement of a faculty that had been grafted by the merest fluke onto the pattern of John Cummings. If the fluke had favored John instead, Roy would have hoped his fellow outcast wouldn't begrudge him just a corner of his happiness.
Then he let his arm fall, and he wondered how the hell he could have been so stupid. He should simply drive away. But he left the car in park because suddenly the invitation—or rather the forthcoming answer—took on a new significance. If John got into the car, then he'd have given up on the woman and boy, and he'd always be homeless, because he couldn't live out his life curled up like a dog on his patron's doormat. But if he stayed where he was, he'd persist: it would mean he knew which home he wanted, and that he'd continue to petition for a welcome here. So Roy watched John while the latter ignored him or brooded or considered, and he hoped for both their sakes the other man would stay put.
After a moment's deliberation, John firmly shook his head no: he'd stay; he'd try to earn his way back in. Roy shifted his car into drive, though he felt a quiver in his conscience about leaving so immediately. He looked at John for the last time. He would stay if the other man asked it, whether or not it would do any good. He made this final offer for no reason except the iron obligation of sympathy. But John shook his head no for a third time, and Roy turned his wheel toward the center of the road. John had freed him.