Jan/Feb 2022  •   Spotlight

Planesong

by John Brandon

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane


Instead of those tiny jump seats at the front and rear of the plane, the Golden Air A380—the single vessel in the company's fleet—was outfitted with an actual staff rest area featuring a set of mid-century walnut chairs—probably salvaged from one of the owner's homes during a redecoration—more comfortable by far than the ultra-padded, seat-heated, neck-massaging recliner Harris always sat in at his cramped condo. The only time all four of the walnut chairs were occupied was takeoff and landing. The jet itself had been purchased from Emirates, and the main cabin had been painstakingly converted into a throwback nightclub. The passengers all dressed to the nines, even occasionally in tuxedos, and some waved unlit cigarettes around as they caroused with their companions. No ArmPals were allowed on the plane; they had to be off and stowed. There was a coat check. They came in all ages, the passengers, looking to recreate an era they'd only seen in movies—the people who could have actually remembered the decade the plane celebrated were mostly dead.

The crew consisted of two stewardesses (they were called stewardesses, as in the old days, not flight attendants or flight experience coordinators), a genuine, in-the-flesh bartender (a rarity), and Harris, who played piano in a main lounge decked out with hardwood floors and candlelight, offering mainly Cole Porter and Glenn Miller and the like. Pilots were a thing of the past because they could make mistakes; the planes flew themselves and had backup protocols and backup-backup protocols programmed into them. Nowadays everything you could buy, product or experience, was either mega-produced and reasonably priced or absurdly boutique and cost a fortune.

Harris was on his half-hour break. Luz, on the latter of her two 15-minute breaks, sat across from him. They faced each other but not quite squarely, and Luz looked frequently out her window as they spoke at an endless and familiar yonder of blue that was, today, shot through with soft, saffron undertones. Harris tried to look at something other than Luz, which wasn't easy, with her pin-straight black hair and supple skin and her collarbones looking like they had been carved by a renaissance artist.

"How about Thursday?" he said, not wanting to impose himself on one of Luz's weekend nights.

"Thursdays I play volleyball. Maybe after, though."

"You play volleyball?"

"I played in college, at San Diego State."

Harris himself had great hand-eye coordination but had always been a slow runner, even when young. He played tennis now and again, and he could juggle four round objects. "I thought volleyball players were really tall," he said.

"Not the libero. I'm a defense specialist. I do the digging." She made her two hands into a soft single fist and mimed bumping a volleyball, and the taut little muscles in her forearm stood out. "I play defense, but I'm not defensive—even though you just called me short."

"I called you normal. I called you perfect."

"Even worse."

"Is it, like, a league at the Y or something?"

Luz scoffed. "We play at the Shimmy-Ya. You have to buy tickets to see us."

The Shimmy-Ya was a music venue for young people. Harris had never been there. He'd been eating pecans before Luz sat down (on Golden Air, nuts were allowed). He brushed the nut-dust off his hands and leaned forward a little. Luz smelled like flowers blooming in a dry, breezeless place.

"What you're telling me is you're a professional volleyball player. You're a professional athlete."

"We get paid, so I guess so. We wear kind of skimpy outfits—a lot of 40-something lesbians come, and also big groups of college guys. I would do it for free except, you know, I'm trying to accumulate excess money."

"Would it be weird if I came sometime?"

"Why would it be weird?"

Harris didn't really know the answer to that, didn't know if he wanted it to be weird or not be weird. He'd known this woman for three weeks, the amount of time he'd worked for Golden Air, and somehow, for some reason, they'd slept together three times. It continually surprised him to think about it, how naturally and easily it had happened, and happened, and happened again. Each time, Luz had appeared at his place and had taken her clothes off as soon as the front door was shut behind her, too fast for Harris to really savor the sight of her, and had fallen fast asleep as soon as they'd finished and slipped out in the morning before the coffee maker could even get gargling. Luz acted strangely normal to him on their flights, not avoiding him and not really flirting, either, but not not flirting. Not hiding the fact that she was fond of him but also not acting like anything needed to be done about it. Nothing that wasn't already being done. He was past 50, and with Luz he felt as unsure of himself as a freshman in high school.

"Thursday or Friday should work for me," he said, wishing he didn't feel the need to pin down plans. It was the uncoolest thing, he was aware—always wanting to know what the plan was. "Saturday I'll probably be tied up," he lied, hoping Luz wouldn't ask what he'd be tied up with. Several times in the past year or so, he'd gone for a long evening walk on the outskirts of his neighborhood with a can of sardines and fed the stray cats. He had no idea whether that was sweet or sad.

"Thursday might be good," she said. "If I go out with the team afterward, people will hit on me. Everybody who watches comes along to the same bar afterward."

"I had no idea you played volleyball, but I did know you went to San Diego State. Or I assumed, from the duffel bag."

"That's why I liked you," Luz said. She repositioned her legs, and her silver anklet flashed in the diffuse, uninterrupted sunlight from outside. "Well, that's not the only reason—I liked your wrists. I like when guys roll their sleeves up and do something skillful with their hands. But what I really liked was you didn't hit on me. Sunday nothing, then Monday nothing, so on Tuesday I decided I had to hit on you."

The plane flew three days a week, LA to New York then New York to Miami then Miami back to LA. At the moment they were heading south, somewhere over Georgia.

"I'm not above hitting on people," Harris said. "I didn't hit on you because you're too young for me."

"Ha," Luz said. "How old do you think I am?"

Harris, frustratingly, did not know. He was 53—he knew that. Luz looked like she could be 30: she had a lot of energy but without being jittery, her teeth were super white, her calves and arms were shapely but still had a youthful softness to them.

"I'm 38," she said. "Old enough to spend time with whoever I want. Not quite young enough to be your daughter, if that's a consolation."

Luz didn't know Harris actually had a daughter. He hadn't mentioned her. His daughter was the complete opposite of this woman before him. His daughter was afraid of traveling, afraid of men, had never played a sport. Harris would be visiting her in a matter of hours, and he knew how it would go.

"I guess I'm not supposed to show how glad I am that you're 38 and not 28."

"I look young because I've never been married. That's the secret."

Harris watched Luz pick her glass tumbler up from the floor and clink the ice—mineral water from the bar. He wondered if she'd ever slept with the young, fit bartender. Perhaps not, because he seemed like he might not be interested in women, but it was also possible she'd taken him for a month-long spin and then abruptly lost interest.

"Is that a shot at me?" Harris said. "I been married three times, so I must look pretty bad, right?"

"You look pretty damn good," Luz said. "Being married three times just means you're crazy. It means you can't take a hint."

"I've been told that. As a professional opinion, I've been informed of that."

"You know," Luz said, a mischievous glint in her eye, "you're not the oldest guy I've slept with."

"That's reassuring," said Harris. "I think."

Luz cocked one of her neat little eyebrows. "I slept with Wersten," she whispered.

It took Harris a moment to figure out who she was talking about, then he found himself blurting, "The owner? That Wersten?"

Luz was amused. "Yeah. I slept with him, and that's why he gave me the job. He wanted me to go out on his boat, but I don't go anywhere I can't leave easily. I don't know how old he is, but he's definitely older than you."

Harris tried not to make a face of any kind at the information he'd just been told. The strangest thing about the information was that Luz was sharing it with him. Either she trusted him disproportionately, or this was something she didn't mind telling people. But she should, right? She should mind telling people.

"You should see your face," she said, tipping back more of her water.

So, his attempt to keep a neutral expression had failed. That wasn't surprising. He found himself harboring the out-of-place thought that Wersten would be annoyed at her saying "boat" instead of "yacht."

"Isn't that how you got hired?" Luz said, grinning.

"I think I got hired because I'm not a flight risk. I'm not going to run off with a band or join the symphony. I'm good but not too good—I guess that should go on my tombstone."

"Are you judging me? Is that what that face is?" Luz's own expression was still mirthful, but suspicion had crept in. "You think less of me?"

"I don't," Harris said. "Not at all. I don't want to be judged, so I don't do it to anyone else. Well, I do sometimes, but not this time. If I'm making a face, it's just because it's hard to keep up with all this stuff."

"What stuff?" said Luz.

Harris felt he was being edged farther out on a plank. It wasn't an unfamiliar feeling for a man with many failed relationships behind him. "When I was young," he explained, "the feminists, meaning pretty much everyone I knew because that's the kind of crowd I ran with—the feminists would've frowned upon wearing revealing outfits as part of a job, whether volleyball expertise were part of the equation or not. They were against that. I guess I was, too. I mean, I've never been to a strip club, if that's what they still call them—well, I did once, but it's a long story. Anyway, these people, and like I say, I guess I was one of them, am one of them, would've considered having sex to land a job to be a very bad thing—a younger woman sleeping with an older man in a, you know, transactional way. They'd say the man was a criminal and the woman was being victimized. But here you are: you're, like, in control of things. You don't seem like you've ever been taken advantage of in your life. You're what the feminists would've wanted. I'm guessing you're just going to let me keep talking and talking. Is that right? Let the old fool keep babbling?"

Luz's dark green eyes were fixed wryly on Harris. She glanced at the clock. Her break was over soon. "I'm not an expert on ancient feminist history—that was a dig at you, the ancient part—but maybe what happened is the feminists realized they shouldn't assume what was bad or good for other women. At some point, the feminists did well enough that they could start taking things on a case-by-case basis. You think?"

Harris nodded in agreement, but he was still confused. He was thirsty, too. He usually drank tea on his break, for his throat, but he'd forgotten it today. Mostly he felt relief because he'd walked himself back to safety, off the plank. Luz was the one talking now, explaining—that meant Harris wouldn't be in the water with the sharks.

"For some people," she continued, "playing team sports in a neon swimsuit before an audience of 200 would be a negative experience. For me, it's my favorite part of the week. I feel extremely vital, healthy, sexy. I forget about everything else going on. I choose to skip the part where the PE coaches drool into their daiquiris and try to ask you out, but I love the games."

"Okay," Harris said. "Right on. I got you."

"In some cases," Luz said, "sleeping with someone for a job would be troubling. In my case, I wanted to sleep with him anyway—he's super suave and he used to run around with Prince and Winona Ryder in the old days. I knew a girl who used to work here, knew she was quitting. Am I supposed to just not get this job I want? It's a good job. Three days a week and pretty decent pay."

"Yeah, you're right. You're totally right." Harris felt he should do more than just agree with her, but he had no idea what else to say. She was making sense, but it was a lot for him to take in. She appeared done with her speech. She was clinking the ice around in the bottom of her glass, that timeless sound like no other. Puffy clouds paraded by outside, silver-gilt and dreamy, but Luz's eyes were narrowed on Harris—they ran down from his face and stopped at his hands. Women had always liked his hands. His fingers were unconsciously tapping out "Pennies from Heaven," the song he'd reopen with in a couple short moments.

"Okay, so Thursday's best," Harris recapped. "Wednesday, too—Wednesday's good. Any night but Saturday." He was sticking with the Saturday fib, apparently.

"It depends on my rentals, of course," said Luz.

"Oh, right. Sure." Harris knew she owned a couple units in one of those pre-fab home parks popping up in the distant, inland LA suburbs. She'd done each of them up in a different theme—tropical, 80's, Victorian. It was true, she was trying to get a lot of money and seemed to be doing a good job at it. "How so, though?" Harris asked. "What's going on with the rentals?"

"I stay in them." She hoisted herself to a standing position and deftly shimmied the wrinkles out of her dress. "Most of the time, at least one is vacant—seems like never the same one."

Harris needed to stand up, too, but Luz was too close, tucking her hair behind one ear with her midsection a foot from Harris' face. "But what about all your stuff?" he asked.

"What stuff?"

"You know, your clothes and... possessions and... you know, everything."

"I keep a suitcase in all of them. They all have kitchen stuff. I don't really own anything anybody'd want to steal."

Just your heart, Harris thought. Luz gave him room, and he stood, cracking his knuckles—it was something he always did before he played, something all his ex-wives had made fun of.

"So usually there's one vacant," Luz said.

"Right, but when there's not..."

She tipped her head toward Harris and made a face that meant voila.

"Oh, okay. I see. When they're all rented, that's where someone like me comes in?"

She smirked, then stepped over and found the little pad she wrote drink orders on, anklet sparkling like diamonds against her skin.

"Do you try me first?" he asked, before he could stop himself.

She shook her head like one might at a new puppy that didn't know how to act, then glanced at a round mirror on the wall and blinked in a stylized, coquettish way. "Last time I did," she said. "If I'm remembering right, last time I did try you first."

 

As soon as Harris was on the expressway and settled into the slow lane, passing by strip mall after strip mall crowded with familiar global chain stores, he shut off the rental car's Ride Advocate so it wouldn't keep asking him where he wanted to go every 90 seconds, each inquiry in a slightly snippier tone. At least three and a half hours to Orlando. No radio without the Ride Advocate, and he hadn't turned on his ArmPal, wasn't going to turn it on, hadn't even put it on his wrist. It would remind him he hadn't taken enough steps today, inform him how various political figures had recently outraged and exasperated one another, show him ads for high-tech birdwatching equipment because he'd searched on a whim to identify an anomalous raptor he'd spotted on one of his late-day walks. Mostly he kept it off because he didn't want any messages from his daughter—it was hard enough communicating with her in person; through a two-ounce computer, it was usually a debacle. Whatever gripes she had about her day or her life, he'd just wait and hear them face to face. If she were going to try and cancel, or feign a desire to cancel in order to make him force his company upon her, he could skip all that. If she wanted to add some idiot errand into his route—boutique dog biscuits costing more than the food she herself ate, or some esoteric battery she needed for her portable dehumidifier—well, he'd rather just get in trouble for having his Pal off. That was the easiest trouble to be in. He'd learned this over the last year, which was how long he'd been using one of the ubiquitous, relentless little devices. He'd given in, finally, a year ago, because resistance was useless. Everything was a computer now. Harris did his best not to rant like a cranky old man, which he guessed was what he was, but it was true: every damn thing was a computer. Kitchen appliances. Eye glasses. Some people had them for pets—furry, four-legged robots. Harris' TV was a computer. He hadn't been able to watch baseball for the last month because his television's operating system had to be updated, and in order to do that he needed to find or reset several passwords, but he needed to do that through his Pal, not through the TV, and have the Pal talk to the TV, talk sense into it, and for some reason the guy on the service chat couldn't explain, the Pal's anti-virus software was viewing the streaming service connection pages as high-risk. Harris didn't understand it, but apparently the devices talked about their owners in private, spread rumors about God, transmitted the entropic poetry of their math-rhythmed data like entranced madmen, all night and all day.

But suddenly the buildings lining the expressway gave out, and here was the sunset. Here it was, conducting itself in astounding, unnamable colors off to Harris' left, a vivid Impressionist extravagance over the flat, brittle, zoned land. The sunset. That was something that wasn't a computer. Nobody owned the rights to the sunset. Not yet. It couldn't catch a virus. It was the same as ever. Better even—pollution was making it more glorious, almost too much to look at, almost grotesque. It was still free. Twenty minutes it would last, and Harris would see it all, till the final dusky curtain hid the dying pastel streaks. Harris had grown up in this state, had grown up avoiding Orlando. He could remember when he was a teenager, starting before dawn at the Atlantic for the unbruising of the sky, donuts and cigarettes, standing awed in a salt wind before the salmon and lavender awakening. He could remember picking across Gulfward on backroads over the course of hours and hours, stopping in every off-kilter hamlet and partaking of whatever was offered, whatever country confection or river walk or local historic site, hitting coastal climes again just as the evening canvas began to explode luridly into life, the end of one day, one solitary day, the beginning of another velvet-black night. A day like that wasn't possible now, was it? Semi-lost? Off-the-grid? Minutes flowing easily into thin, glare-bright hours, the afternoon one big blithe blur? Maybe it was still possible. Harris had no idea—he only knew it didn't seem possible for his daughter. Not anywhere close to possible.

The piano was the same as ever. Sex was the same as ever, for as long as he could keep doing it. So was the feeling of just talking to a gorgeous woman: the giddy, unmoored sensation running brain to stomach and then lower. A meatball sub was the same as ever, if you got it in the right downtown establishment. The crack of a deep drive to the gap was the same as ever, if you could get your TV to work.

The term Kafkaesque occurred to Harris as he pulled into his daughter's complex, but maybe Kafkaesque only applied in a big city, somewhere cold and windswept. This wasn't a city, and it definitely wasn't cold. It was huge and repetitive, though, a maze of thin lanes between dozens of three-story buildings constructed in the last five years but designed to resemble old, converted warehouses—new, but made to appear once-dilapidated. The land had been clear-cut for the complex, so the new trees were all about nine feet tall. No one spoke to anyone else in the complex, Harris had noticed on his last visit. People had always said New York and LA were unfriendly, but any stray walker on the Heritage Grove property was engaged in solitary dog-walking, was returning from solitary exercise, was carrying bags of groceries with no help. Apparently, one of these buildings had a pool on its roof. The last time he was here, Harris had tried unsuccessfully to coax his daughter into taking advantage of this amenity. She'd claimed aversion to the strong Florida sun—perhaps a genuine and reasonable fear (though problematic for someone who lived in Florida)—but she just as likely might've been afraid to be seen in a swimsuit, afraid to make small talk with anonymous neighbors. Harris had insisted sunshine helped one's mood, that if was life-affirming, the eternal, natural warmth soaking into you.

"Or life-ending," his daughter had replied, "once you get cancer. And there's nothing wrong with my mood, by the way."

He found the building with the correct numbers, found a visitor space, hoisted his travel bag onto his shoulder, and strode up the hibiscus-lined walk. It took three times knocking, and then the deadbolt clicked and the chain slid and Harris saw his daughter standing there in a loose sweatshirt and leggings and purple wool socks, her nose a little red like she'd been blowing it, her hair a little greasy. As always, no matter how bleak the prospects for a pleasant visit, a little thrill went through Harris at seeing his child, his baby, his flesh and blood. He leaned in for a hug from this young human who was as tall as she was going to get, which was not very, as strong as she was going to get, which was not very, and unfortunately, as Harris knew from his own experiences, as wise as she was going to get. He wanted the hug to last longer, longer, because once it was over, they'd have to do what they were so bad at: talk to each other.

"What happened to your Pal?" she said, stepping back and making way for him to come inside.

The question confused Harris for a moment. "Oh, right," he said, catching on. "No, I've got it. It just... it doesn't have any charge."

She gave him a suspicious look, perhaps preparing a follow-up question, but as she closed the door, her dog appeared, yapping in agitation, not sure whether Harris was something to be happy about or something to attack. The dog wouldn't really attack anyone, though—he was shin-high and had poor vision and bad skin and a condition that caused him to pee everywhere. His daughter had named him Russell. Harris had wondered, when he'd first seen the dog, if his daughter had chosen this particular animal because it was the most troubled specimen at the whole rescue.

"You know him, Russy," she told the dog, mock-chiding him. "No one's scared of you, Russy. You're gonna pick a fight? That's what you're gonna do?" Turning to Harris, she said, "Let him smell you," but when Harris took a step toward the dog, he bared his teeth and crouched defensively, shivering.

"Russy!" his daughter scolded. "Grumpy, grumpy. We're going over here now. You join us when you get ahold of yourself. You come on over when you can be civilized."

She clicked her tongue at her flustered, backpedaling pet, then led Harris into the spacious, open room that composed most of the apartment. She turned back suddenly and pointed down at his feet. "Just got new rugs," she said.

"Oh, sure," said Harris. He stepped on one heel and then the other and kicked the shoes over near the door, and the dog redoubled its barking. The creature was on several medications, ate according to a special diet, and was scared of its own shadow, this quaking descendant of the magnificent wolf.

Harris' daughter asked if he wanted something to drink, which meant water or juice or soda, since she didn't drink alcohol. She carried over two tall glasses of water and handed him one, and they both took a seat and sighed, each on their own identical love seat. The blinds were closed—why not, since there was nothing outside but the side of another building and the well-lit walkways. The ceilings were 20 feet high. The air smelled like when you boil water in a dusty, old pot, and also sour cream and onion chips, and also scented candles, though it was hard to tell which scent. He watched his daughter take a sip of her water and set the glass aside. Her Pal vibrated on her wrist. She looked down at it, tapped the screen with her nail, no expression registering on her face. She looked a little peaked, not only her nose red but her eyes around the rims. He wasn't going to ask if she had a cold. Without knowing why, exactly, he knew she wouldn't respond well to that question.

"How's work?" he asked instead. "You still liking the job? Liking the company?" She was a consummation preference analyst, and apparently was pretty good at it. For a 27-year-old, she made an excellent salary, and she performed her duties from home, did most everything she did, Harris gathered, work or not, sitting up in bed in sweatpants.

"Ugh," she said, slapping a hand to her forehead. "Don't talk about work. I'm so behind. Like, many days behind. It's traumatic to open my email at this point."

"They're loading you up, huh? They must think you're good. They must like what you're doing."

"They load everyone up. They need to hire more people, but they won't. I see now why they like to put people on salary."

"Are you on a special project or something?" Harris asked.

"I wouldn't call it special," she said. "I've just been dealing with this—I don't know, my stomach has been killing me all week. I feel like it's from stress, so I've been trying to relax and not work, but now I'm so behind I'm even more stressed out."

"I'm sorry," said Harris. "Maybe you picked up a bug somewhere."

His daughter shook her head, dismissing the idea. She pulled her legs up under her. Her Pal buzzed again, and again she glanced at it neutrally and tapped the screen. "It just doesn't feel right. I can't even tell if I'm hungry. I always feel like I want a little snack, but not more than a snack—like, constantly. I get up in the middle of the night not knowing what I want to eat, then I wind up doing work at three in the morning."

"Take a break for the next couple days, then catch up over the weekend. That's what I used to do, when I worked a regular job."

"No way," she said. "I have a rule about weekends. I have to unplug. I can't just keep flooding my psyche with other people's streaming habits. I'll go nuts."

Harris nodded. He wasn't supposed to help with any of this, he reminded himself. His daughter wanted to tell him her stomach hurt, and he was supposed to sympathize—no more, no less. "Sucks you been feeling crappy," he said. "Let me know if there's anything I can do." What he wanted to say, but didn't, was that anyone who avoided the outdoors and ate snacks but never meals and didn't do anything during the day to tire out their body so it would sleep at night—that person probably wouldn't feel dynamite. Harris could hear the dog whining, gnawing on one of its toys back in the alcove by the front door. His daughter was probably deaf to the sound by now.

"We could go for a long walk tomorrow. Get up early. I have to start back about ten, but we could go before that. Sometimes a walk helps."

"Well, that's the thing," said Harris' daughter. "I have a doctor's appointment in the morning, right when the place opens."

"Tomorrow morning?" said Harris, then hoped his tone hadn't been accusatory.

"They're booked up the whole week," she said, leveling her eyes at him. "What, do you want me to just not go to the doctor? You want me to just suffer with this? Something could be really wrong. I messaged you, if you'd turn your Pal on."

"No, no, that's fine. You did right. If that's the only time they had... I'll help you get out in the morning, and we can leave at the same time."

"What do you mean, help me get out?"

"I don't mean anything. I mean if you need me to walk the dog or something. Well, not that—he wouldn't like that. But just, you know, anything."

Harris' daughter was picking one of her nails aggressively. Her Pal made its noise again; this time she tapped it twice and told it, "Remind me later." The dog's chewing noises were finally loud enough for her to hear—she called out to him, telling him to behave, issuing a false threat to withhold his nightly treat.

Harris was trying not to think about all his daughter's doctor visits. She'd gone to a doctor for headaches a while back, caused, in Harris' opinion, by the fact that she stared at a screen all day and breathed no fresh air and didn't ingest protein, and the doctor had given her pills. More recently, she'd gone to a doctor for back pain, caused, Harris knew, by sitting all day—or to be specific, slouching all day—and that doctor, who was perhaps the same doctor, had given her more pills. In Harris' admittedly amateur medical opinion, his daughter didn't have a problem that couldn't be solved by a long hike, a burger, a glass of red wine, and a roll in the hay.

"So, how's Josh doing?" he asked. "That's the new guy, right?"

This drew a noncommittal shrug, which Harris asked the meaning of.

"Things got weird," said his daughter.

"Already?"

"When are they supposed to get weird?"

"Well, what do you mean by weird? What does weird mean?"

She performed a sigh. "Most of it is stuff I wouldn't exactly talk to you about."

"Because it's—"

"Yes, Dad—sexual. Some of it, anyway."

"Okay," said Harris. He watched his daughter produce a hair tie from somewhere and pull the dark mop he'd always loved through it and through again. This was the place to let the exchange drop, but he hadn't driven all the way up here to get completely stonewalled. "It wasn't good?" he tried.

"The sex?" she squawked, edging back on the love seat, embarrassment in her voice.

"You guys weren't compatible?" Harris said.

"We didn't have sex, okay? We didn't even get that far. Geez, Dad."

"Oh, so that was the trouble—not enough attraction."

"I'm not talking about this, okay? You don't need to worry about Josh. Josh and I aren't really happening."

"Okay, that's fine," Harris said. "I'm just interested."

"I can see that," said his daughter. "You get points for being interested."

"So, Ryan? Is that just over now? Ryan's history? Can I ask about Ryan? I liked him, you know."

"I guess he's history. Until further notice, he's history. Who knows?"

"Last time I was here, you two were doing great, then all of a sudden it's on to Josh. Sorry, not all of a sudden—just all of a sudden to me."

"Goodie—this is the part where I get relationship advice from a guy who's been divorced three times. I get to answer for all the mistakes I'm making."

Harris' daughter had thrown his divorces at him enough that the move didn't have much pop in it anymore. Even so, it was a valid point for her to bring up. "That's just it," Harris said. "Sometimes, I think you're not making enough mistakes. You know your own parents got divorced, so you're afraid to dive into anything. But sometimes diving's the only way. Otherwise you just stand there on the edge of the pool until the sun goes down."

"It's a while before my sun goes down, Dad. They don't marry us off at 16 anymore, you know."

"I just don't want my troubles to be the reason why you live any certain way, or don't live any certain way—I don't know if that makes sense."

Harris' daughter brought her shoulders and head into a posture of forbearance, like she was going to be patient with her rambling father. It was true, Harris didn't really know what he was trying to communicate. He only knew a lot seemed wrong about his daughter's dating operations. She seemed to only get involved with guys she met through work, apparently over screen meetings since she didn't actually go anywhere for work. In the old days, co-workers were the people you didn't date. And how could you tell you wanted to date someone from some remote meeting? You couldn't smell them. You couldn't see how they moved. At least she wasn't meeting up with random people from Internet sites anymore. She'd done that for a while after college, with discouraging results. People didn't go to bars or church anymore, not that Harris himself had ever really gone to church. There were still softball leagues, but his daughter didn't do anything like that. There were still birdwatching clubs, exercise cliques, places to volunteer. She didn't do any of that.

"If you must know," she said, "he kept pressuring me to go on a trip to the Caribbean."

"You're practically in the Caribbean now," Harris said, not knowing if this was a reason to go or not go.

"There's all these hurricanes and earthquakes devastating the islands. There's millions of people starving and picking through debris, and he wants to go down there and sip pina coladas."

"Well," Harris reasoned, "I think it actually helps if you go and spend money. If you stimulate their economy."

His daughter gave him a warning look. "So, then he says we should go to Montreal. No sun, he says, lots of wine. A chance to see someone smoking a cigarette."

Harris laughed, then knew he probably shouldn't have.

"I said, and exactly how does Russell fit into this plan? I've had him 14 months, and Ryan can't even remember he exists. He wanted me to put him in doggy prison. Like, hello, the last time I visited mom, I left him at that place for three days—he was furious at me for two weeks. I don't blame him. He's in there getting picked on by the other dogs, probably humped, neglected, no one to talk to him. Ryan knew about all that."

Harris wondered how she could tell the dog was mad at her. He'd never seen the animal express any affection or even wag its tail. He wondered how she was getting along with her mother, his second wife, second ex-wife. He really had no idea—one thing he and his daughter agreed not to talk about was her mother.

"Just bring him, he says. Yeah, like I want to bring him to a big, filthy city—lock him in a little cage in the hotel room so we can go out and Ryan can get sloppy drunk."

"It's not easy being responsible for another life," Harris said. It was the right thing to say and also, he supposed, he meant it. He crossed his legs, hoping to appear relaxed, and did not ask whether having Russell meant his daughter would never go on another trip, ever.

"Anyway," she said, pinching the bridge of her nose delicately, "there's more to it than that. I don't want to get into it. He'll either get in touch, or he won't. He probably won't, because he doesn't want to apologize. That's cruel and unusual torture for him—apologizing."

"Well, take some time," Harris said. "If it's meant to be, it'll work out."

His daughter did a motion like she was washing her hands of the situation, but of course she must've cared very much. Before Harris could figure out how to pry further, she cocked her head toward the door and said that speaking of Russell, she should probably take him for a walk before he let loose on the floor, the poor guy.

"Can I come along?" Harris asked.

"Probably shouldn't." She hoisted herself up to standing and rummaged in a bowl on the coffee table until she found the thin leather leash. "I don't want him to get nervous."

"Okay, you're probably right. Why don't I go fetch some dinner instead? It's pretty late. We can just eat in."

"That's fine," she said, "if that's what you want to do."

"I'll just use the Advocate in the car. You must have every chain restaurant imaginable within five miles." Harris stood and found he was tired, his legs heavy and stiff. "How about Puerto Rican?" he said. "Plantains? Ropa Viejo?"

She bunched her lips up on one side and narrowed her eyes. "Have you been listening?" she said. "You think my stomach can handle Ropa Viejo? What's going on when I talk? Why does no one listen?"

"Shoot, I'm sorry, sweetie. Just slipped my mind. My fault." Harris couldn't help but start checking them off in his mind: Indian was out. Thai. East African. All the good ones. "How about a soup and sandwich place?" he tried. "Reuben for me. Minestrone for you."

"That's fine," she said. "I'll pick the beans out."

Harris' daughter stepped out of the sitting area and over near the door, and he heard her gasp. "Oh, come on, Russy," she wailed, bending over and forcefully taking something away from him.

When Harris stepped over, he saw that the item was his shoe. His daughter held it out, and he took it. They were old running shoes he didn't much care about, and he told his daughter so. They were still wearable, he said to her back, while she scolded the dog in a tone the dog would never understand as scolding, a sort of high-pitched, resigned pleading. The tongue of the shoe was ripped half out, and the back by the heel had a big split in it.

"Totally no big deal," Harris said, mostly to get his daughter to cease her useless sermon. To prove his point, he put the shoe on, and it stayed on his foot enough to walk in.

"I guess just put them up high from now on." His daughter was upright again, facing him. "Like on the fridge or something. I don't know what his problem is. He likes most people."

Harris watched his daughter clip the collar on the dog and make sure she had a little baggie to clean up after him, and then they all made their way down the front walk together, Harris' daughter's ArmPal buzzing, Russell needing to be almost dragged away from the comfort of the apartment. Harris gently squeezed his daughter's shoulder and said he'd be back in no time, then found his car and sat down inside it and hove an elaborate sigh like a man given sweet sanctuary after days in the desert. He started the car but didn't start driving right away. Turned off the Advocate before it could utter a full sentence. He could still see his daughter and her pitiful pet in the glow from the path lights, Russell trying to dig up a hibiscus plant, his daughter hiding under the hood of her sweatshirt in the extremely temperate weather.

 

A cavernous room. Too big to know exactly how big. Marble floors reflecting colorless light. A glare from high above, through the glass fretwork of the skylit ceiling. People milling about on the periphery. Some of them seemed to be calling out to distant others, raising an arm to flag someone down, but Harris couldn't hear them at all. A man in front of a small shop, closer to Harris, dropped a wooden crate on the floor—no sound from that, either—and pushed it where he wanted it with the toe of his boot and started hoisting bails of magazines out, cutting twine, clopping the stacks roughly, silently, onto a broad, painted rack. Smoke bellowed in from a tunnel, followed by a noiseless train. Only now could Harris see right in front of him, see the old man sitting across the small, round table. The man turned the page of his newspaper, and here was the first sound Harris had access to—the dry, crisp crinkling, like a sound cue in a movie. If he could just see what newspaper it was, he'd know what city he was in. If he could see the date, he'd know what year, what decade.

Now he saw who the man was. His great-grandfather. He saw the watch on the man's wrist, glinting when he moved his arm, seeming to generate its own brilliance. That particular watch was actually at Harris' condo, in a drawer in his bedroom. In real life, the watch was in Los Angeles. But Harris was in a dream, and here was his great-grandfather, grinning mildly as he skimmed the headlines to see if any more of them were worthy of attention. His legs were crossed in that genteel way even blue collar men had once crossed their legs. He may have been a gentleman, this old man, but he wasn't genteel. He'd been a scout in the Second World War, an alpine specialist, helping to defeat Hitler, his life on the line daily. After that, he'd worked at a power plant, producing electricity. Here he was, with his neat, gray hair retaining a hint of blond—he was the son, Harris knew, of a fair Italian and a tan Fin.

Harris wanted to tell him, for some reason, that he'd never been in a fistfight. A real, one-on-one fistfight. Not once. He felt compelled to admit this—since he was dreaming, he was surprised he didn't just blurt it out.

His great-grandfather chuckled. Amused. Polite. "If you're not cornered, fighting is a silly indulgence," he said.

Harris had spoken aloud. He was glad, he supposed. Glad not to be able to hide anything. You had to do it so much in real life, filter and censor yourself. He had heard his great-grandfather speaking, and now he heard the newspaper again as his ancestor folded it up, carefully following the creases and flattening it with the heel of his hand, returning it to the exact condition it had been in before he'd read it. The noise was like other things besides a newspaper—it was the sound of walking through brittle grass on a windless, fall day; it was the sound of an old space-heater firing up. It was the sound of other things Harris couldn't quite pinpoint.

"Your great-great-grandmother," the old man said, as if picking up a conversation already in progress. He rested the tidy loaf of paper aside on the table.

"Your mother?"

"I'm not sure you understand. She was the best. It's not a competition, but fact is fact: she was the best."

Harris' great-grandfather wore Sunday clothes, including a vest. Everybody was dressed up, the people on the periphery. Harris could remember when he was very young, his great-grandfather visiting at the house Harris' father had just bought, the house Harris would grow up in, and doing yardwork outside in the heat in a dress shirt. Digging a ditch. Another thing Harris had never done. Harris, for some reason, couldn't tell what he himself was wearing right now. He couldn't see his own hands.

"It's not something you can say to people and have them understand. Everybody thinks it, of course—that their mother or grandmother or whoever is the best, was the best. But in our case, it's true."

"That's what I've been told."

That same chuckle again. "Good—at least it's part of the family indoctrination. I'm happy to hear that."

"She could raise a better meal with pocket change than the Governor's chef could with a staff of ten. That's what my dad used to say."

"That's probably an exaggeration," said Harris' great-grandfather, "but it's accurate in spirit. The point is correct."

The phrase "accurate in spirit" rattled in Harris' mind. He felt neither warm nor chilly—he had no body, really, but he must've had a mind. Even in dreams, you had a mind.

"If she'd been a nun, she would've outshone Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa would've reported to her."

"Right," Harris said. "A lot of the women from her village became nuns. The place was famous for it."

"She didn't have a choice." Harris' great-grandfather casually cracked the knuckles of his thumbs. His hands looked like Harris' hands. Like most people of older generations, he was holding onto his posture as long as he could. He was shorter than Harris, but he seemed taller, sitting down. "Her father drank up all the money he ever made. When he made any, that is. She had to stay home and raise the younger siblings so her mother could go to work. She had the equivalent, in this day and age, of a 7th-grade education. The whole family lived in a two-bedroom hovel with busted windows. Not her father. He slept on the street, drunk. Or at the brothel."

Harris knew. She'd built a cleaning company out of nothing, eventually hiring four employees. They'd named a room in her church after her, a room—Harris had stood in it—where candles burned in blue glasses and the bent light made it always seem like late afternoon. Six hundred people had attended her funeral.

"Anyway," said his great-grandfather, "nothing a nun does could be as hard as being married and raising kids."

Harris didn't have to say he knew this particular truth better than anyone. All was known to his great-grandfather. All was known and accepted.

"Are you a ghost?" Harris asked, then felt immediately daft, like he'd asked the wrong question.

"If this was real life, I would be."

"I mean... are you still alive? Outside this dream, do you still exist in any way?"

"Anybody can ask anybody that," his great-grandfather said. "Anybody at all. Think about it."

Off at the edge of the scene, the edge of the dreamscape, the guy at the newsstand was now stacking old newspapers in a leaning tower against the tiled wall. The day was getting on, Harris understood. He was yesterday's news, while his great-grandfather was history.

"Yes," the older man said, "there weren't too many rooms that woman stood in where she wasn't the smartest and humblest there."

"Which is more important?" Harris almost snapped.

"They're connected," said his great-grandfather. "In her case, you could never untangle them. Humility was the basis of her intelligence."

Harris nodded. He almost understood, and he wanted to. Time was strange in the dream. Time was passing, moving kind of sideways. Suddenly Harris was thinking of all the jobs he'd had. He felt an uncomplicated happiness that he currently played piano for a living. When he was young, he'd known how to tie many knots and had been practiced at changing oil—he'd never get back to that place, but at least he made music. Music was in a different realm than delivering junk food and gadgets, or supervising the people who delivered junk food and gadgets. He made live music, and at least for now, the world still wanted that.

His great-grandfather had rapped his knuckles on the table in an upbeat gesture. They'd done what they could for today. Harris couldn't tell how long ago his elder had done this—just a moment ago or 20 minutes ago or maybe more. It didn't matter. The point was the dream was slipping away, same as the trains silently moving off into the misty nothing of their tunnels—there was no way to make the dream stay; it was silly to try. It had started raining. Harris could hear the low drumming on the skylights. He could see umbrellas blooming and wilting. Hulking automobiles flashed past outside, splashing through puddles.

Harris' great-grandfather wasn't at the table anymore. He and the guy from the newsstand were over near the exit doors, handing out the old newspapers to people who didn't have umbrellas so they could tent them over their heads and hurry off to whatever was out there waiting for them. The city. The evening. Luck. Consequences.

When Harris came to, Luz loomed above him, her face close, her cedar-green eyes peering, her cheeks slightly flushed and black hair cascading down like a wispy hood. He could tell he'd only been unconscious for a short time, a matter of seconds. Luz helped him sit up, bracing his elbow and shoulder so he could prop against the piano, then she scooched back a bit, regarding him less urgently now that he was awake.

"Knocked yourself pretty good," she said. "I didn't see it, but I heard it. Like a gong."

"I didn't get yanked off stage, did I?"

Luz cocked her head, confused.

"Old show," Harris said. "Never mind."

"Are you okay?"

"I think so. Was it turbulence?"

"What were you doing?" said Luz. "Why weren't you buckled?"

Harris held up his hand and he and Luz looked at the small, white cylinder it clutched. A lipstick tube. "Saw this rolling around," he said. "I bent down to get it. I've been told by more than one wife how expensive these things are. I thought whosever it was would want it."

"I'll take it," Luz said. "I'll make an announcement."

Harris handed the makeup over, then watched as Luz reached out and brushed the hair off his forehead with her blunt, clear-painted nails. She was stunning in any light, but it was high-altitude dusk now, the grainy, thin-aired, static blue of the edge of the world. Shy luminescence was yawning in the windows and kissing Luz's cheekbones with a tender sheen.

"I was about to play Stormy Weather. I don't think that's irony, but it's something. A lot of things we think are irony aren't, really. That's what I've heard."

"Clear air turbulence," Luz said. "We're in the desert."

"Will you marry me?" Harris said.

"Jesucristo," said Luz, shaking her head but not backing away.

"My head is jumbled, but my heart's perfectly fine. My heart runs like a Singer sewing machine. My heart'll bust through a brick wall for me."

"Yeah, you do seem like the type to keep throwing yourself against a brick wall." Luz's face was composed around a stiff smile. She was sitting with one leg stretched out and the other folded beneath her. Harris felt no turbulence, no motion whatsoever. He couldn't even tell they were in the air. He didn't want to get up. He didn't ever want Luz to say she had to get back to the passengers, or that he needed to lie down in the staff area. He wasn't even sure he wanted an answer to his question. Waiting for an answer was okay.

"I'm perfectly happy, Harris. I'm healthy. I'm flexible. I don't have to get onto anybody. I do whatever I want."

"None of that will change. I'm already trained. I've learned all the lessons. You won't have to do a thing."

"I don't want a kid."

"I don't, either. Are you kidding? I have one already. And from now on I'm going to just listen to her and try to help her. I'm gonna help her do what she wants to do, not try to get her to do what I want. What's the point of clashing all the time, worrying all the time? Nobody does what's right for themselves. Nobody. Not even you, probably. Like now, you have no idea whether to marry me. No, I'm just going to make sure my daughter knows all about her great-great-great grandmother, and I'm gonna get out of the way. If she does nothing, I'll get out of the way of that."

"Who's her great-great-great grandmother?"

"You'd love her," said Harris. "Or you would've. You'd have been friends."

Luz absently ran her hand down her outstretched leg, an athlete stretching. She was taking all this in, amused by the idea of entertaining a marriage proposal, massaging her hose-clad knee, which was shaped as perfectly as a little apple. "What if I spend all your money?"

"If there's no kids, there's plenty of money. Unless we quit our jobs. I guess we could. I don't want to, though. I like this job. I'd play these old songs way up in the sky till the day I keel over."

Luz allowed herself to laugh, a low-pitched little cackle. "I'd have to make all new friends," she said. "I don't want to be friends with married women. They're the only thing more boring than married men. You're not boring right now—you know that, right? You're willing to give that up. Again. That's probably why you get divorced so much: you miss not being boring."

"I only care if you think I'm boring."

"I might, though. I might start to. Things could change."

Harris shrugged. "It's a standing offer. I won't be asking anyone else, and I won't change my mind. Once you're dead, it's a long time sitting around. It's a long time sitting around in train stations. You need good memories and lots of them. You need something to make you smile once you're done with the newspaper."

Luz pulled her outstretched leg in toward her and sat up very straight, the levity in her expression drying up, like in time-lapse nature footage of a watering hole during a drought. "I slept with the last two piano players before you," she said. "I have a thing for piano players. It's true I didn't like them like I like you, but still—"

Harris heard Luz's words ringing clearly in his mind and was surprised they didn't sting him in the least. It was confusing that he wasn't annoyed. He blew out a big breath. "Whatever gets my foot in the door," he said.

"You're better than they were."

"Oh?" said Harris.

"You're a better piano player."

Now Harris laughed. "If you don't say yes, at least don't say no. Leave my iron in the fire. It's my only iron."

"And you want it in my fire?"

"So to speak."

Luz, smirking, rolled her head around to indicate the passengers, to indicate the demands of her duties. The seatbelt sign had gone off, and a few folks were up and milling about. Several pairs of eyes were looking in Harris' and Luz's direction, trying to see if he was okay or maybe just wondering when they'd get another drink. "Turbulence is long gone," Luz said. "I need to get these people their orders."

"Right," Harris said. "The show must go on."

"Is your head okay?"

"It's at least as good as it was before."

"Stormy Weather," Luz said. "Maybe it's ironic because there isn't any, not because there is."

"That sounds right," said Harris. "I'll back you on that."

"All right, here we go."

"Here we go."

But nothing happened. Neither of them made a move to rise from the mutedly glossy parquet. They were practically in space, earth and all its sharp-cornered states far, far below, as distant as a theory. Harris, Luz, the passengers—they were all closer to the endless, unruly, blithe world of the dead than they were to the named days of the week, than they were to paychecks, to fashions of politeness, to hobbies, to former lovers, to the quiet but merciless gravity of real, literal, physical loneliness.