When Kevin arrived at the top floor and stepped into a long dark hallway, he couldn’t recall the circumstances of his getting there. Likewise, he faltered on the subject of his purpose, though he felt it related to something material, like architecture or interior design. The ancient elevator man with the scary swooping eyebrows had brought him to the 15th floor—he knew that much at least—but he was pretty sure someone had dropped him off at the front of the building. A very pale woman with reddish hair (his sister Michelle?) had waved from the open back seat window of a car and wished him good luck. On the way up in the elevator, he kept hearing inside his head the metallic concussions of a car crash.
The hallway, startling in length, was lit by industrial fixtures that cast perfect discs of light on a glossy navy-blue floor. He thought, Slippery when wet, and looked down at his shoes, charcoal OluKai Nohea Mokus, recently purchased online at REI, mainly because of their “vegan friendly construction,” a concept he sometimes pondered when he had trouble falling asleep. He imagined that the shoes, like his too-tight chinos and too-busy checked shirt, were all wrong for today, whatever today might be. Because of the fundamentally abstruse nature of clothing (a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma), he struggled with choosing what to wear. Most often he found himself distracted by thoughts of his body inside the clothes, as now, this moment, he felt sad and a little bitter about his damp white feet trapped inside the beautiful Mokus.
A door swung open at the farther end of the hallway—he glimpsed stainless steel kitchen appliances inside—and a young man about Kevin’s own age, wearing a narrow black tie and a white bistro apron, emerged; he smiled guiltily, took a phone from his hip pocket, and put one finger to his lips, as if to say, Don’t tell anyone you saw me out here.
And all at once, everything came into focus: Sunday afternoon, Manhattan, somewhere along the East River, a housewarming for friends, Ralph and Debbie, and their magnificent new loft. As Kevin moved toward the nearer door, the tune in his brain was The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” which had claimed him via a SlimFast commercial three years earlier and which had still not let him go. He saw no button to push, no bell to ring. He inhaled deeply, lifting his shoulders, and exhaled a cleansing breath like a baseball player stepping to the plate. He turned the spherical brushed-nickel knob, the door opened easily, and he entered a foyer that was nearly as big as his whole apartment. He thought mudroom, and then sliced mudrooms, and then mudroom soup. He observed built-in pine cabinets and many closet doors, a powder room, and an unlit hallway off to the left that likely led to bedrooms. To the right was an enormous unfurnished room with a high ceiling, brick walls, and exposed ductwork and electrical conduits. From somewhere beyond, he heard the chatter of a cocktail party, which sounded to him like a flock of geese. Directly before him, on a dark cherry wall, hung a lithograph he remembered from Ralph and Debbie’s old place in the Village, an Alice Neel entitled Jar From Samarkand, noteworthy because Neel considered it a portrait of a friend despite the fact that the friend wasn’t in it. She’d meant to portray the friend’s absence, an abstraction that occasionally visited Kevin on the G train and at a Greenpoint coffee shop where he sometimes had breakfast.
As he walked through the big empty room, he heard the deep hum of an 18-wheeler idling outside in the external hallway—the mighty rig that seemed to follow him wherever he went and always parked close by. The room’s blond hardwood floor had the sort of grain that manifested faces of people and animals if you looked at it for very long. As he neared a pair of swinging doors with matching portholes set maddeningly off-center, he reminded himself to insert deliberate pauses into his thinking. Odd, he thought, to have to pass through the kitchen. He pushed open the doors: bright white tiles, an off-putting seafood and roasted meat aroma, four people resembling the guy in the hallway busy with food and drink. A girl at a soapstone sink caught his eye and, as if to help him, pointed in the direction he was already going.
Beyond a second set of doors, an unlit dining area abutted the palatial main room, the epicenter of the cocktail chatter, and right away he knew he would have to stay away from the wall of windows at the far end of it—a panorama, with undertow, of sky and water and the glass high-rises of Long Island City. He lingered briefly at the threshold, scanning the 25 or so guests for his friends. A darkly tanned middle-aged woman, perched on a burgundy Richmond ottoman about 15 feet away, looked directly at him and laughed, revealing tobacco stains on her teeth. He averted his eyes and remembered something a yoga teacher had often told him, that when you thought people were laughing at you, they were only laughing near you. “Oh, Kevin, Kevin,” called Debbie from across the room, and then every person was looking at him. He fancied himself made of wood, a decorative wooden mallet a giant might pick up and use for striking a gong.
Now it was extreme hugging, first from Debbie, looking elegant and fragile with her gray hair pulled back from her face, followed by the massive Ralph, who cried, “Buddy boy,” and wrapped him up so absurdly, it made Kevin think of the Milky Way. They each had a sharp and familiar scent he couldn’t name.
“Everyone,” said Debbie to the room, “this is our dear friend Kevin. He’s lovely and smart, and I hope you’ll make a point of meeting him.”
Despite his best intentions, Kevin squeezed his eyes shut—but exactly like a crazy person. In the darkness, he recalled that Alice Neel had painted a portrait of Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, memorable mostly for having once said to an interviewer, “I can explain it to you, but I cannot comprehend it for you.”
Kevin thought it kind of Debbie to introduce him to the room like that—she was only being polite—but he wished he’d been more prepared for it. When he opened his eyes, the guests were no longer looking at him, and Debbie took his arm and said softly, “I’m sorry, darling, forgive me. I shouldn’t have embarrassed you like that. Now where on earth is Michelle?”
“Do you mean pale Michelle?” Kevin asked.
“Well, yes, I suppose that’s who I mean,” said Debbie.
“Michelle is rather pale,” said Ralph, cocking his head to one side in an ironic way. “I’ve noticed that myself. Excuse me, I’m going to check on the kitchen.”
Once Ralph had gone, Kevin said, “I’m not sure where she is. She might have been in a car crash.” Then, because of the alarm on Debbie’s face, he added, “But don’t worry—I’m sure she’s okay.”
Debbie smiled the way people smile at puppies at a shelter. “Well,” she said, “I think I should give her a call. I expected to see her. I mean, I assumed she would … Are you sure she’s not with you?”
“I’m sure,” said Kevin. “You look wonderful by the way.”
“Thank you, sweetheart, why don’t you find a place to sit, and I’ll—”
“Doesn’t she look wonderful?” Kevin said suddenly, quite loud, addressing the room. The noise that had been pressing on his pineal gland had subsided, more quickly than usual, most likely, he thought, because of his having recently given up red meat, artificially sweetened soda, and fluoride toothpaste.
“That’s because she is wonderful,” said the woman on the ottoman, in a southern accent, and there followed a clamor of agreement, during which Kevin sat on the floor in a half-lotus. He thought, Ottoman Woman, and then Ottowoman. Debbie squatted beside him and put her arm across his shoulders, as if to subdue him. He admired the way she was able to keep her balance with only very high patent-leather heels for a pedestal. Her beautiful knees were near his face.
“And this apartment,” cried Kevin, determined to show her how fully he’d recovered from his brief discomposure. “How amazing! The perfect shade of gray on the walls, not too dark, not too light. In case you’re wondering if that’s a real Kandinsky over there behind the sofa, yes it is. Ormolu clock, check. Regency library table, check. Priceless 19th-century Amritsar carpet, check. Some of you might be thinking this place is over-the-top. Extravagant. Capitalism run amok. Look up income gap in the dictionary and you’ll see a picture of us, right now, sitting here in this room. But in my opinion, Ralph and Debbie totally deserve a place like this. They’ve worked hard for their money, and they’ve always been immensely generous.”
During the distinctly awkward silence that ensued, Debbie kissed him on the cheek and stood up. Looking down at him, she said, “Kevin darling, wouldn’t you like to see the bedrooms?”
“Am I being too dominant?” he asked her. He turned to the room and said, “Am I being too dominant?” Then, to Debbie again, “I’m being too dominant, aren’t I?”
“No, no, darling,” she said, “not at all. I just thought you might like to see the rest of the new place. Since you love it so much.”
The guy he’d seen earlier in the hallway came by now with a tray of champagne flutes and lowered it to Kevin, but Kevin declined, not trusting himself to handle stemware. A huge reverberant orchestral chord exploded in his left ear, almost painful. “Okay then,” he said, getting to his feet. “But I would like to avoid any big windows if possible.”
“Not a problem,” Debbie said, as she began leading him back through the dining area. “Let’s see if we can find Ralph.”
Before she pushed open the kitchen door, Kevin took her wrist and said, “Debbie, are you very much in love with Ralph?”
“Well, yes, I am,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Sometimes I get these feelings,” he said. “A couple of minutes ago, I thought you were disappointed in him and possibly wanted to kill him.”
She laughed and looked into his eyes. There was a comb half-buried in her hair on one side, ivory with nine freshwater pearls. “Kevin,” she said. “You’re the most sensitive person I know. Rest assured, I love Ralph very much. I don’t know what I would do without him. I certainly don’t want to kill him. I just sometimes wish he wasn’t such a coward—emotionally, I mean—and that’s probably what you were picking up on.”
“Oh,” said Kevin. “That could possibly be hereditary, like something dogs derive from their wolf ancestors. He might not be able to help it.”
Barbara, the southern woman with tobacco stains on her teeth, went with her friend Roberta onto the terrace for a smoke. Roberta looked at the river, the sky, and then all around the terrace. She said, “There’s nowhere to sit out here.”
“No,” said Barbara. “She told me the furniture was supposed to have come yesterday, in time for the party, but it got delayed. I guess we can just sit on the floor and lean against the wall there. It looks clean enough.”
Once they’d sat down and got their drinks situated on the terra-cotta tiles, Barbara placed a green glass ashtray between them and borrowed Roberta’s cigarette to light her own. From their low position, they could still see a good deal of the view through the iron railing. They gazed across the river in silence for a while, and then Roberta said, “What the hell is in this punch?”
“Don’t know,” said Barbara. “Really good though.”
“Really good, yeah,” said Roberta, “but really strong. Just don’t let me go anywhere near that railing.”
After another silence, Roberta said, with no enthusiasm at all, “Quite a view.”
“I’ve never really liked views,” said Barbara. “There’s something so relentless about them.”
“Hmm,” said Roberta. “But didn’t you and Duncan have a view on Riverside Drive?”
“That was different,” said Barbara. “We looked out onto treetops. Not like this.”
A gust of warm air swept the terrace, and Roberta quickly flattened her hand over the ashtray. “Is it just me, or is Ralph unnecessarily tall?”
“Definitely,” said Barbara. “Not to mention unnecessarily rich.”
“What do you think this place cost anyway?”
“They haven’t invented a word yet for how much it cost.”
“Do you think she’s okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what do you think happened here today? There’s like two dozen people in there, max.”
Barbara shook her head. “All I can tell you is that she told me yesterday she’d invited 60 people.”
“Sixty? Oh, my God, Barbara. That’s crazy. Is it because of that thing in the Times about Ralph? I don’t see why that would keep anybody away.”
“No, that’s not it,” said Barbara. “She sent out the invitations too late. The crowd they run with, you know they have those insane calendars. Every minute of every day, booked, months in advance. Fundraisers. Galas. Ballets. Operas. Dinners for 10, elderly men, from the UN.”
“Well, I’m busy, and I managed to get here.”
“You’re not busy, Roberta. You don’t even know what it means to be busy the way I mean it. Duncan and I, before the divorce, had something to do, somewhere to be, every single Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. We never had a solitary minute for anything. It’s probably the actual reason we split up. I mean, aside from the fact that he was spending his lunchtimes shtupping Little Miss Barnes & Noble.”
“Barbara, you can be so funny,” said Roberta without laughing. “And who’s that boy? That Kevin person?”
Barbara shrugged one shoulder. “I saw him once before at Debbie’s,” she said. “Down on West 4th. I think they might be distantly related. Not by blood, but somebody’s cousin’s brother-in-law’s nephew or something. He has an older sister who used to work for Debbie in some capacity. I never got the whole story. You know how she is. She adopts people.”
“And there’s something not quite right about him, right?”
“I think he’s harmless,” said Barbara. “But probably on the spectrum or something.”
“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” said Roberta. “Or maybe not autism exactly, but definitely some kind of mental illness.”
“Welcome to the club,” said Barbara. “Who do you know who doesn’t have some kind of mental illness?”
“Well, I guess it depends on how you define your terms. He’s cute, though. Don’t you think he’s cute?”
“Adorable,” Barbara said.
Roberta put out her half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray, then removed her sunglasses, cleaned the lenses with the hem of her blouse, and put them back on. “And speaking of cute, how’s your darling Brett doing?”
“Still mad as a hornet,” Barbara answered. “Mad as a wet hen. Honestly, you’d think I’d divorced him. At the moment, he’s somewhere in Virginia.”
“Virginia?” said Roberta.
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail,” said Barbara. “I just hope to Christ it helps.”
Roberta upturned her glass and finished what was left of her drink. Afterward, she held the glass in her lap, idly rubbing her index finger a few times around the rim. “I’m drunk,” she said at last.
“Me too,” said Barbara. “Crap, I hate being drunk.”
“It’s just so unimaginative. I’m going to be 50 in December.”
“You don’t look it.”
“Oh, shut up, Roberta.”
“You shut up.”
“You know what I don’t like about the whole spectrum thing,” Barbara said. “It used to be somebody either had autism or they didn’t. Or maybe they had Asperger’s, you know. But now you’re obliged to say a person’s on the spectrum, the implication being that you don’t know where they are on the spectrum, just somewhere. I mean, it all just feels so, I don’t know what, like everybody’s floating around in space, on one spectrum or another. Like sexuality. Like gender. Two more spectrums everybody’s on. It’s like nothing’s specific anymore. I mean, how are you supposed to get your fucking bearings? It makes me think of my poor old mama. Last time I saw her, before she died, she was sitting in that dark living room shelling shrimp and tossing the shells over her shoulder. ‘Oh, I used to love doing this,’ she said to me, and she didn’t have a clue where or who she was—somewhere on the Alzheimer’s spectrum. It’s like life has become this big scary array of spectrums, and we’re sliding around on them wondering why we feel so confoundingly lost, so impossibly lonely all the time.”
Roberta knitted her brow and turned down the corners of her mouth. She widened her eyes and said, “Whoa.”
Barbara heaved a great sigh and said, “God, I miss my mama.”
Roberta reached for her hand. “Oh, sweetie, are you going to cry?”
After quite a long silence and without much conviction, Barbara said, “Maybe.”
The room where Kevin lay on the bed had no window and was therefore pleasantly dark, the only bit of light coming from the opening of the bathroom door, which was very slightly ajar. He’d fallen asleep, briefly, and now he rested on top of the covers thinking about pronouns. A few minutes before, when Debbie had taken him on a tour of the bedrooms, he’d remarked that this one was especially inviting. He loved its windowlessness and its sparseness, with only an ebony platform bed, a single nightstand and lamp, a dark red Chinese armoire, and a blue Persian rug. Debbie suggested he might like to lie down and rest, and though he knew she meant to dispense with him, get him out of sight, the idea of napping in the dim graceful room overrode any slight he felt. He’d removed his shoes and, in no time at all, dozed off and dreamed of meeting two beautiful Croatian women, separately and sequentially—bakers, who told him they’d drunk from a particular fountain in a particular town and that it had changed the direction of their lives. Then the rest of the dream was his trying and failing to get the two women together, since they were both bakers and had this other extraordinary thing in common. Soon he’d awakened thinking about his nonbinary friend MJ, whose pronouns were they/them/theirs. Secretly Kevin coveted MJ’s pronouns, for he thought their plurality had an unaccountable loveliness and would perfectly express the variegated nature of who he was, the prism of his real and true heart. Of course he knew without a doubt that any claim he might make to plural pronouns would be false and offensive, so it would have to remain a fantasy, unrequited—he loved the pronouns, but they didn’t love him. He thought, housewarming, and then saw in his mind’s eye a beekeeper, androgynous in a white bee suit, inspecting a hive, removing a frame, agitating the bees, and crying, “How swarming!”
He reached for his phone, which he’d left on the floor next to the bed. At 11 o’clock tomorrow morning, he was expected to report for work at the vintage furnishings store on Franklin Street where he served as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, performing every task his boss Mr. Delgado (who wasn’t the least bit delgado) didn’t like to do, including preparing, pricing, and then photographing, cataloging, and posting every item in the store on the store’s website. Now he needed to text Mr. Delgado and say he wouldn’t be coming in until midafternoon. “An urgent personal matter,” he wrote and left it at that. He knew that his boss would get over it, as Mr. Delgado was precisely the kind of man who got over things. The reason Kevin would be going in late was that he’d seen a free piano advertised on Craigslist, a 1920s Mathushek Spinet Grand, and he’d made an appointment to see it in the morning in Bronxdale. The piano’s owner was letting the piano go for free because it had a cracked pinblock and needed restringing, minor soundboard and bridge repairs, and some damper work. All Kevin had to do was pay to have the instrument moved. Kevin opened his email now and reviewed the photos of the remarkable treasure, a rectangular mahogany case that rested on four Adam-style legs. He had no explanation for why he wanted it so badly—after all, he’d never studied piano and knew nothing of piano restoration—but the moment he first saw it, he recognized it as a possible root to the problem of himself, something he could substitute for the unknowns and variables in a long, difficult equation and arrive at some clear solution.
The door to the room now opened, and two women stumbled in, laughing and then shrieking a little as they spied Kevin, on the bed, in the dark. “Oh, sorry,” said the woman he identified as Ottowoman with the southern drawl. “We didn’t know anybody was in here. We’re looking for a bathroom, and the powder room’s occupied, apparently indefinitely.”
Startled but determined not to show it, Kevin continued looking at the photos on his phone and said, calmly, pointing to the bathroom with his chin, “There’s one right there.” Superimposed on the Mathushek Spinet Grand was a detailed diagram of a mouth, stretched wide open, past a tobacco-stained grate of teeth, the medial sulcus of the tongue, the papillae, the uvula. At the same time, he heard, seemingly behind his own eyeballs, vibrating the bones of his cranium, a woman’s bloodcurdling scream.
“Me first,” said the other woman, who moved quickly across the Persian rug and disappeared into the bathroom.
Ottowoman, still at the door, said, “Sorry to barge in on you when you’re trying to rest. Is that what you’re doing in here in the dark? Trying to rest?”
Kevin, thinking papillae ever after, said, “I forgot to insert pauses into my thinking.”
As if she perfectly understood what he meant, she stepped forward into the room and closed the door behind her. “I’m Debbie’s friend Barbara,” she said. “Oh, it really is quite pleasant here in the dark. Calming, isn’t it? A nice contrast to the whatever you want to call it … the frivolity out there.”
She had not quite come into focus, but Kevin could see that she held a drink at her waist with both hands, rather ritualistically, and that she displayed an impressive cleavage in the deep V of a black blouse with shiny buttons. He judged her to be in her mid-40s and believed she might be leaning with her back against the door she’d just closed, a curiously tragic pose, he thought, and then he heard the flush of a toilet followed by running water in a sink. In a matter of seconds, the other woman came out of the bathroom, tiptoed past Kevin’s bed, giggled softly, and whispered, “Jeez, it’s dark in here.”
Once the woman had opened the door, mumbled something about prime rib to her friend, and left, Kevin said, “You’re not by any chance from Croatia, are you?”
“Croatia?” said Barbara. “Well, no, dear, I’m from Alabama.”
The room’s ceiling, which Kevin could have stared at forever, was made of polished red bricks. The gray lines of the mortar between the bricks occasionally coalesced into a grid and started to descend toward the bed like a great net, less frightening than mischievous. Barbara sat next to him, sipping her drink, her back against several pillows she’d arranged. She smelled of cigarettes and a citrusy perfume and had her ankles crossed below the hem of her white slacks. She had not removed her gold sandals. Kevin, gazing up at the ceiling, had just asked her if she could hear a deep humming noise that seeped through the walls of the room.
“I do hear something,” she said, seeming genuinely interested, “but I wouldn’t describe it as deep. More of a white noise, you know. Like the air conditioning or possibly the hum of the city or something.”
“No,” he said, “I hear that, too, but that’s not what I mean.”
“Sorry,” she said and then gave him a sideways, appraising kind of look, as if he were a patch of ice she was considering walking across. She said, “Tell me what you meant before, when you said you’d forgotten to insert pauses in your thinking?”
“It’s a strategy,” he said. “A way of preventing myself from spinning out, but I usually forget to do it. It’s too much to ask, really. Are you familiar with what’s called the pugilistic attitude in forensic science?”
“I think so,” she said. “You mean like with burn victims? It’s like this. The arms curl up as if they’re boxing.”
“That’s right,” said Kevin. “The croissant I had for breakfast this morning did exactly that. When I toasted it.”
She laughed, which pleased him. She seemed to notice this and was pleased herself. She took a sip of her drink and drew one finger across her right eyebrow, then the left. He had a feeling that she was feigning nonchalance when really she was uneasy. “And why,” she said at last, “did you ask me if I was from Croatia?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Kevin. “Something I dreamt. There were these women who made these beautiful cakes and decorated them like Kandinsky paintings.”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s actually a really good idea. I mean, you could open a bakery that specialized in cakes decorated like famous paintings. Has somebody already done that?”
“Of course,” said Kevin. “You can order them online.”
“Just once, I would like to think of something that isn’t already online.”
Kevin considered this remark less than completely honest, that she might have simply been humoring him. “Listen to this,” he said. “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
“Oh, my God,” said Barbara, “that’s so beautiful. What is it?”
“Kandinsky,” answered Kevin. “He was entirely insane, but I like the idea of the soul being a piano.”
“I do, too,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m sitting in here with you in the dark like this. If somebody came in they’d think we were up to something.”
“We are up to something,” said Kevin, and right away, the theme to The Addams Family with the snapping fingers started playing in his head, quickly drowned out by Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor.
“Pray tell,” she said. “What are we up to?”
He shrugged. “The same thing people are up to all the time, everywhere. Sitting next to each other on a bus or on a beach. Riding up a mountainside in a gondola. We’re exploring.”
She laughed again. “Exploring,” she said. “I like that. I think the only gondola I ever rode in was the Venetian kind. And that was a hundred years ago, on my honeymoon.”
Kevin recalled that there was a cocktail called a honeymoon and one called a doppelgänger and an arboreal insect, Crematogaster peringueyi, commonly known as the black cocktail ant. He imagined a knock at the door, a middle-aged man dressed in camo bib and outback hat, her husband, who’d come looking for her. “I guess you’re divorced,” Kevin said.
“Is it so obvious?” she said.
“You were sitting on the ottoman,” he said. “Why did you get divorced?”
“Because of the biggest cliché in the book,” she said. “He was having an affair.”
“With a friend of yours?”
“No, no,” she said. “Just somebody he met in a bookstore. A girl, really. A clerk. About your age. About the age of our son.”
“And you couldn’t forgive him.”
“I suppose not,” she said. “I don’t think I tried very hard. And he didn’t seem very sorry.”
Kevin looked at her. She appeared older to him now. She picked up her drink but only stared down into the glass. She said, “Maybe you could give me some advice.”
“About my son Brett,” she said. “He’s just about your age, and he’s very angry at me about the divorce, even though it’s been two whole years already.”
“You think because I’m his age, I can give you advice?” asked Kevin.
“Of course you can’t,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’ve had too much to drink. I wouldn’t even be here if I wasn’t a little sloshed.”
“Does he like baseball?” Kevin asked. “Is he a Yankees fan? A Mets fan? I guess you could give him tickets to a game. He’d probably like that. Or maybe this amazing sterling silver letter opener from the store where I work. Though nobody really gets letters anymore. It might just end up being a murder weapon. You could give him a telescope. Or you can never go wrong with a really good aviator watch.”
At that moment his phone buzzed. He sat up, looked at the screen, and said, “Uh-oh.”
“Do you need to take that?” she asked.
“Yes, but don’t leave,” he said. “I might have some more ideas for you.”
It was Michelle, his sister, and the first thing she said was, “Why didn’t you tell Debbie I was coming in a little while? Like I asked you to?”
“Oh, right,” said Kevin. “But she didn’t ask me if you were coming.”
“Well, I know she was wondering where I was because she called and asked me.”
“Where are you anyway?”
“Now I’m in a cab on my way up there. I told you when I dropped you off that I had to go downtown to the theater and that I would be back in about an hour.”
“Right, the theater,” said Kevin. A red velour curtain rose above a proscenium arch to reveal a young man in a wooden chair, shirtless, a patient in a psych ward, stark against a backdrop of bare ruined choirs.
“Kevin,” she said. “Did you take your meds?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I took my meds. Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Barbara stood up now and whispered that she thought she should give him some privacy, but he waved her back so violently, she sat down again.
“I’m just asking, Kevin,” said Michelle.
“Okay,” he said, “but I want you to think about something. Think about me asking you whether or not you used your deodorant this morning. There’s an implication and you should recognize that and think about it before you ask.”
“All right, Kevin. It’s just that you assured me you’d be all right for an hour.”
“I was all right,” he said. “I am all right.”
“Debbie said you seemed a little agitated, that’s all. I’ll be there in 15 minutes. But I really don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.”
“I need you to go with me to the Bronx tomorrow morning,” he said.
“Oh, please,” she said. “Don’t start with that business about the piano again. You have work tomorrow morning, and so do I.”
“I have an appointment,” he said. “I’m going whether you come with me or not.”
“No, Kevin, you’re not,” she said. “You absolutely are not. We’ve gone over this already about a thousand times. Now I’m hanging up the phone.”
“Wait,” he said. “I want to ask you something important. Is it true that right before Mother died, she sat bolt upright in bed and said, ‘I didn’t know there would really be trumpets’?”
After a moment, his sister said, “According to Daddy, yes, it’s true.”
“I’ve always liked that, that she said that.”
“I know it, Kevin,” said Michelle, “but really, I can’t keep doing this.”
She did hang up then, and Kevin said to Barbara, “Right before my mother died, she sat bolt upright in bed and said, ‘I didn’t know there would really be trumpets.’ ”
Then, to his own surprise, he heard himself making a hissing sound, like a pressure cooker he’d seen long ago in a cartoon. Barbara quickly set down her drink on the nightstand and took him into her arms, whispering, “Oh, my poor boy …” He rested his chin on her shoulder and wept, and he was 99 percent certain that she was crying too, only more softly. He sensed that the gray mortar net on the high ceiling was descending slowly toward them, and when he looked up, he counted nine faces of deer behind the mesh. Barbara still smelled like cigarettes and a lemony perfume but also like something new, something along the lines of wet wool. Zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds, he thought, and then he tried to kiss her. He felt her breath on his lips, finer than dew, a thimbleful of mist. She slid both her hands onto his chest and pushed him an inch or two away. “No, love,” she said, “no, no. That wouldn’t be okay. Maybe okay for you, but not for me.”
And they separated and sat as before, side by side. After a few seconds—because he’d already begun to think about dying, and how, according to a theory he was passionate about, when you die, if you die young, you just wake up in another life and take up right where you left off—he said, “Do you believe in parallel universes?”
She made an airy little laughing sound, took a tissue from a box on the nightstand, carefully dabbed her eyes, blew her nose, let out a once-and-for-all kind of sigh, and then reached for her drink. “I think so,” she said. “I never really thought about it before, but hell, sure I do. Why not?”
The main reason why not, thought Kevin with a tinge of impatience, was that nobody had ever produced any empirical evidence for such a thing. Still, evidentia, from the medieval Latin, meant “that which is obvious.” And, regardless of whether we lived in a finite or infinite universe, matter could be arranged in only so many ways and was bound, eventually, to repeat itself.
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