Favorite

The Trip Home 

A Short Story from 'The Middle of the Night,' a new book by Tucson resident Daniel Stolar.

Even as I pace this gritty poolside, waiting for Louise, I think of you. Tucson is a godforsaken city and I long to hear you making fun of it. "More strip malls than people," I can hear you saying. "The personality of a parking lot and the good looks to match." It is no exaggeration to say that for the twenty years we were together, Clara, nothing was quite real to me until I had told it to you at our dinner table.

The pool lies in the corner of the motel parking lot, an oval-shaped thing with a weary plastic slide. I set my hand on the rail of the slide, impossibly hot in the midday sun, and squint down Speedway to the east where Louise will soon pull up in her old Ford Bronco. The heat ripples off the wide pavement in waves and the entire city smells burnt, an oppressive mix of tar and exhaust.

We will take eight days to drive home to Kansas City. We will stay in motels, eat at diners, maybe even camp. Can you imagine it, Clara? Me, roughing it? The trip was Louise's idea, of course, but I'm in the rich part of a new relationship, when everything is full of surprise and promise. So when Louise suggested meeting me here after my conference and driving back together, I let her convince me. I even brought along a set of my charcoal pencils in case I feel impelled to sketch the western landscape; it is a hobby I'd all but forgotten until I met Louise.

In Denver we'll visit your sister and brother-in-law. I haven't seen them since the week of your funeral. I know it will be awkward introducing Louise to your family, but ultimately, it's unavoidable. Kim is as much family to me as my own brother and sister; it was she I called during my worst nights six months after you died. And as much as Harvey infuriates me, I can't imagine this trip without the visit to their home. In truth, I've felt the anticipation of it like a slow burn since the day Louise and I first planned our vacation, a hope so fierce that I didn't dare look at it directly. Now, as I turn to pace another length of the motel pool, I realize what it is that I hope to see in your sister's rich brown eyes: the closest thing I'll ever get to your blessing.


THE RED BRONCO bounces into the parking lot as Louise honks on the horn. Two full days driving alone, and there she is, honking the horn, waving her hand out the window with all the enthusiasm of a school girl celebrating homecoming. I feel wings flutter in my chest, and I know as I walk the length of the pool that my face is beaming.

Then I see the dog, Sophie, sticking her head out of the opposite window, her face sleek in the breeze. I nearly stop in my tracks. Sophie came into Louise's life six months before our first date. She is a mutt, part collie, part chow, a beautiful dog but a charity case--abused by her previous owners. She was due to be put to sleep when a friend of Louise's phoned from the Humane Society; Louise adopted her that very afternoon, literally saving the dog's life. But in all of our planning for this trip, we had never mentioned bringing her along.

"Hey honey," Louise shouts, just a little louder than I might wish. She climbs out of the car and walks toward me, her arms outstretched to embrace me from twenty feet away. "We're definitely in the desert," she says, feeling the air with her hands as she closes in on me.

We wrap each other in a hug right there in the parking lot, two fifty- year-old adults hugging under the desert sun. Louise shakes me from side to side. An old Mexican in a creased denim baseball cap has been watering the potted plants outside of the motel rooms, and he stands absently watching us until I catch his eye. The back of Louise's T-shirt is wet, molded to her skin.

"Can you believe it's only been four days, Jonathon? I missed you. How was the conference?"

"Everything you ever wanted to know about the new tax codes for private enterprise." I feel the pressure of her breasts and ribs and bony hips against me. In minutes, I will make love to this woman under taut motel bed sheets in a

"I can't decide which sounds worse--a conference on taxes or driving alone across Kansas." She smiles as we pull back from each other. Then, in a gesture borrowed I'm sure from her third-grade classroom, she clasps her hands together in front of her. "We're going to have such an adventure." She kisses me loudly, full on the lips. From her ears swing the dangling airplane-shaped earrings she wears whenever she travels.

"I see you brought company." I nod finally toward the car.

"Oh God, I almost forgot." Her hands fly to her face and I remind myself to focus on her eyes; her hands are too unsettling. She nearly jogs back to the car. She throws open the door and Sophie scampers out.

I crouch down heavily on one knee in the parking lot. "Come here, pup."

Sophie bounds toward me, frisky from the time in the car, but at the last second she veers away. She eyes me from five or six feet away, wagging her shaggy tail furiously, but with her belly cowered close to the ground. Her eyes are opened wide in some strange mix of excitement and fear.

"I know I should have said something, but I just couldn't bear to leave her behind. Not after all she's been through." Louise adds this last part tentatively, not sure yet if she needs to head off my objection, not wanting, I can tell, to start our trip on any note of tension. And like so many times in the past few months, I'm struck by the fact that Louise is also damaged goods, a widow of sixteen years, a mother of one, who had all but given up on dating, and that she, too, finds herself on new and shaky ground; that this, in fact, may well have been why she brought Sophie in the first place.

I extend my hand toward the dog. "Come here, Sophie." The Mexican man eyes us nervously from behind the nozzle of his hose, none-too-pleased with this skittish mutt loose in the parking lot. Sophie watches me with the same trepidation.

"I thought you two were past this stage of being coy." Louise crouches down next to me with one arm over my shoulder, the other reaching out to the dog, a position we have assumed countless times over the past months--Louise proving by association that I'm not dangerous. Sophie skids a few feet closer, then pushes herself back on her paws, the wild look still in her eyes. "It must be all the terrible things I said about you on the drive," Louise says.

"They're all lies, Sophie, she can't be trusted. Who fed you for the past three months?"

For the first two months Louise and I saw each other, Sophie wouldn't come near me, even after I was spending the night regularly at Louise's house. Soon we figured it out: Sophie panicked in the presence of men, particularly dark-haired men like myself. Whoever owned her before must have really done a number on her. I could hardly ask Louise to give up the dog on my account, so I started feeding her, letting her in and out at night. There was something soothing in the daily incremental progress, and eventually Sophie let me pet her. She had never entirely overcome her wariness though, jumping away if ever I moved too suddenly.

Now she is having no part of me. The four days apart have put a world between us.

"Well, dog, that's your loss." Louise rubs her hands together as she gets to her feet. She pulls me close to her, her hands on my hips. Then she lets out a low, throaty hum and turns me toward the motel.


FROM THE MOMENT YOU turned to me and asked if I was ever going to propose, I thought I'd never have to face the uncertainty of dating another woman. We were at the old Esquire Theater, the late show, and I got down on one knee right there in the aisle as the credits rolled. But I had no delusions of being a romantic or impulsive man. You took my face in your hands and the family in the row behind us applauded, but I did not feel my heart open up. I did not weep. No, it was more like the feeling of a project finished, filed away, the relief and satisfaction of a clean desk--bigger, perhaps, but not qualitatively different.

I like to think that even then you knew this. You loved me still. And gradually something happened: I see it as a gentle layering in my heart--day upon day told to you and, thus, given to me--the imperceptible daily accumulation amounting to a sea change over the years.

We were making love when I discovered the first lump in your breast. How does a man forget such a thing? It comes to me now suddenly--when I am driving to work or cleaning my desk or watering the ferns hanging in our kitchen. I can feel your nipple under my palm, the uneven nugget of tissue against my middle finger. If I try during the day to summon your face, the image is often vague, the lines unclear, but I can feel the first lump of your cancer on the pad of my finger as if it were a pebble I just picked up.

You must have noticed my sudden fumbling because you pulled your face away to look at me. "What? What's wrong?"

"I don't know."

"What, honey?" you said, the fear in your voice, I think, because you were worried something had happened to me.

I didn't speak, but you moved my hand away and felt with your thumb. You stood up slowly and went to the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door. You stared bluntly at your naked self, feet shoulder-length apart, torso squared, and I couldn't help wishing that you would cover yourself up. But I was a different man then than I am now and I went to you quickly. I stood behind you in the full-length mirror and took you in my arms. My forearm stood out against your olive chest and shoulders, and it was my body with its sparse black hair and pale skin that looked sickly. Your face was drawn, your eyebrows arched, and you seemed, somehow, resigned. "First thing tomorrow," I said, "we'll get it checked."

Even now, barely a day passes that the trials of the next ten years don't repeat themselves in my mind. The three major surgeries. The radiation and chemotherapy. The wigs and scarves and hats. Your interminable weeks of nausea. I can still hear the exacting young surgeon describing your last operation: how they would crack open your breastplate and pry apart your ribs to remove the metastases in your lung. You had left the room; you no longer had the need I did for such detailed explanation.

But, of course, there is another, more shameful list that also encompasses these years. A list of anti-depressants, anxiolytics and sedatives. It began just after your mastectomy when my occasional insomnia turned into an unbearable, nightly ordeal. The names and dosages have changed over the years, but the pills I take have long been part of the given of my life--tiny round watch guards of my soul.

After your death, I was taking more and more of everything. The first few months were manageable with all that had to be done. But Friday morning, five-and-a-half months after you died, I was at the gas station on the way to the office, and I could not fill up my car. I could not open the door or drive forward. I stared at my hands gripping the steering wheel. They were pale and chapped from the Kansas City winter--I had lost three pairs of gloves that week alone. I don't know how long I sat there. I watched my breath form and dissipate in front of me. The very essence of life, it seemed, was nothing more than this mindless repetition.

Starting that day at the gas station, and for the next few months, no combination of pills was quite enough. I lay in bed at night, writhing inside the contradiction of insomnia--obsessed by the very thing I wanted to be unconscious of: the moment-to-moment passage of time. I rubbed my ankles together until the skin was raw, and I tried to imagine my lonely dinner the following night, the expanse of weekend that lay ahead. But I could see nothing around which to structure the hours. I added and subtracted my different pills like so many numbers on a ledger, but I could no longer achieve the zero balance that meant that I'd make it through another day. Suicide was with me always then--like a lamp left glowing at the end of the hallway that I walked past regularly, but wouldn't allow myself to enter. Every day I had sudden glimpses--images shimmering just inside the periphery of my imagination when I was cooking or shaving. Once driving over the Mississippi.

How I made it through that time, I'm not sure. I see them as gray, blurred months, the days indistinct and underwater, vanishing untold one into another. I remember taking time off work; I remember doctor's visits and long walks; I remember late-night phone calls to Kim. I don't think I noticed any colors for four months.

Then I met Louise. No, Clara, I have not told Louise about the pills. You, at least, loved me before. There are many things that I haven't told Louise. There will be time for that. It's good to feel that there is time again, and I'm not just talking about you, I'm talking about me as well. I can see the shapes of my days again, with Louise at our dinner table, with Louise at the symphony and art museum, with Louise seated across from me at the outdoor cafes of Country Club Plaza. After only two dates, we were blocking out time for each other in our nearly identical day planners; within weeks we were spending every night together. And soon, I found myself jotting little notes of things to tell her during the day and needing less and less medication to fall asleep at night. In fact, the pill bottles lie for entire weeks now inside my briefcase, making it easy to forget that they are something I'm keeping from Louise.


WE HAVE BARELY LEFT Tucson when Louise reaches into the backseat and unzips her duffel. "Look what I brought." She places a cardboard shoebox on the dashboard between us, pausing for effect. "I played along in art class." Ceremoniously, she lifts the lid. It is a handmade diorama. Of all things. It's just like the dioramas her kids are always making to dramatize the latest history or reading lesson. A man and a woman stand beside a construction-paper tent; the tiny clay man has sideburns with a touch of gray, just like myself.

"What a handsome couple," I say.

"And so outdoorsy."

"If I look closely, can I figure out how to set up a tent? It might be my only hope."

"I also brought this." Louise twists around again to reach behind her. "For Kim and Harvey." She pulls out a bottle of port. It is a bottle I recognize, one we sampled together at a restaurant, full-bodied and expensive. "Do you think they'll like it?"

"You didn't have to do that."

"I wanted to," she says. "Do you think they'll like it?"

"I know they'll like it." I put my hand on top of hers and interlace our fingers. "I know they'll like you."

We continue to hold hands much of the way as we drive north past Phoenix. In Sedona, we check into a bed and breakfast beside a noisy creek, arriving in such thick darkness that we have no idea of the red cliffs that contain us on all sides. The next morning's view feels like a revelation.

Sophie and I remake our tenuous peace over the first couple days, and except for the smell of wet fur in the car, I have to admit she isn't a bad travel companion. The only time she doesn't obey Louise's commands is at the sight of water, and then she takes off in a headlong dash. Afterward, she has an endearing post-swim routine of shaking herself off, rolling on her back at Louise's feet, rubbing her coat against trees and rocks.

Louise has spent a part of each summer traveling the country with her son, Jeremy, and she happily regales me with stories of their adventures in some of the very places we are visiting now--which rock Jeremy climbed, where they camped, how much Jeremy ate. Jeremy is a sophomore at the University of Michigan, and over his spring break, the three of us ate dinner together twice. He is an agreeable, well-mannered boy, his pierced ears and torn jeans notwithstanding, and he handled Louise's frenetic doting with touching grace. Louise adopted Sophie the same week Jeremy left for college and, though it was a call from a friend that prompted the adoption, I'm sure that the timing was more than coincidence.

Louise and I decide to camp for the first time near Durango, in southwest Colorado, the night before Denver. We park the Bronco at the trailhead and prepare our packs. Here, Louise is clearly in charge--I haven't spent the night in a tent since summer camp. I stand stiffly at her side as she packs the two backpacks. When she's done, I take the heavier pack and sling it over my shoulders. Louise steps behind me and adjusts the straps. Then I hoist the other pack in the air, and she slips into it. I am a new man, an adventurer and camper, and together we stride down the dirt trail through the occasional patches of snow and ice. For the first mile or so, Sophie takes off on long bounding sallies, galloping back to us at full speed, but soon she settles into an easy trot behind us on the trail.

We set up the tent in the glow of a fiery dusk as I again follow Louise's instruction. Then we cook couscous on her camping stove and sit cross-legged on the ground, eating directly out of the pot.

After dinner, we unroll our sleeping bags and pads inside the tent. "Tomorrow's the big day," Louise says.

"You're going to make me pack the backpacks by myself?" I lift her hand to my lips and kiss it.

"I feel like I'm a freshman in college going to my boyfriend's parents' home for Thanksgiving."

"Please don't call Harvey and Kim 'Mr. and Mrs.'"

Louise busies herself with the zipper of the tent. "You almost never talk about Clara," she says. "And still, I feel like I know her."

"Really?" I say. "What was she like?"

Louise takes off her earrings and slips them into a pocket of the backpack at her feet. She adjusts the sleeping bag around her. "It took me almost three years to talk about Steve without crying."

"Hmm." I smile at her consolingly. I've seen the pictures of her husband on the living room wall, in a tiny gold frame by her bed. He had a crooked, good-natured smile, eyes set close together, bushy, endearing eyebrows. I have heard the stories. He was a lawyer, a studious man who was surprisingly athletic, and he was killed on impact when his car slid off a frozen exit ramp. But I have no concept of the give and take between them, of the tenor of their relationship. I have no sense of their shared life. And, as much as I try, I cannot feel like these things have anything to do with me.

Louise is looking at me now, waiting for me to say something more.

"Seriously," I say, "tell me what you think she was like." I do my best to keep my voice light, even.

"OK." Louise looks at the wall of the tent. "OK," she says. "She was funny. She had a bit of the devil in her."

"Yes," I smile. "She had a bit of the devil in her."

"She loved you very much."

"We were married twenty years."

She nods slowly. An electric lantern sways from a strap on the tent's ceiling, the shadows advancing and retreating across Louise's face.

"Do they look alike?" she says.

"Who?"

"Clara and Kim."

"No." A hint of exasperation has slipped into my voice. I take a breath. "Yes." I've always focused on the differences, but, of course, now that I think about it: "They both have brown hair and brown eyes. They had the same eyes."

"Is it that you don't like to talk about her, or that you don't like to talk about her with me?"

"Clara was sick for a long time," I say. Outside, the racket of night insects has reached a fever pitch. "I wasn't always the man I wanted to be."

Louise takes off her glasses and sets them in the dark corner of the tent. "I just thought--" She stops herself. "Sometimes you seem to forget that I lost my husband, too."

But they were married just four years, I want to say. And her husband died instantly. She can't possibly know what it is to stare at death day in, day out for a decade.

"There's nothing to be nervous about tomorrow," I say.

"They are Clara's family."

"They are everyday people with problems of their own."

"Oh?" The question in her tone is unmistakable.

"It seems Harvey has played around at times." I don't know why I tell her this--certainly I hadn't intended to--and yet I feel the relief the moment the words are spoken. I can tell from the drop in her shoulders that Louise feels it as well. "For all I know, maybe they both have," I say, though I can't imagine it of Kim.

"But they stay together?"

"They seem to get along. Their boys are wonderful." Louise's question is the same one I've been asking for years. Harvey is a man I've never trusted, swarthy and handsome, roaring off to his swank architecture practice on a bulging BMW motorcycle. And yet I think the world of Kim, and I can't deny the obvious understanding between them. "They're easy to get along with. You'll like them."

Louise pulls her Walkman out of the top of her backpack. She plugs in the two tiny speakers and then pops in a tape. The tent is indented behind her where Sophie has collapsed against its outside wall. If Louise lies facing me, their backs will push against each other through the sleeping bag and tent.

"And they'll like you," I say, and though I make my voice consoling, it has finality in it, too.

Louise sets the Walkman and speakers between us at our feet. "Purists would hate this." She is trying to put the previous conversation behind us with her cheerfulness. "Disturbing the sounds of nature. But I think the setting is perfect for Chopin." She knows that this is my favorite music. She clicks play on the Walkman and the tape whirs forward. She lies back in her sleeping bag and turns off the flashlight. A moment later, the piano pierces the night's irregular hum. The notes seem to hang in the close air of the tent, surprisingly clear out of the little speakers. Through the mesh of the open fly, the stars are an indistinct web of white.

"I didn't mean to upset you."

"No," I lean over and kiss her lips in the darkness. "You didn't."

Louise's hand lingers on my cheek as I pull away from her, but she doesn't say anything more.

I lie back in my sleeping bag and listen to the shimmering piano, to the rise and fall of my own breath. I can hear Louise's breath as well, just below the music. At some point, I know that she's asleep.

I like to think that I could have been many things, a physician as my father wished, maybe even an artist as my mother secretly hoped, but I settled on accounting and it is work that suits me. The satisfaction of the balanced account, the nine-to-five. I am a man who appreciates the dotted i and crossed t. But I do not suppose that this is beauty. I can't say why the majesty of these mountains--the sheer rock, the unimaginably bright swathes of snow and ice--looses a vague terror in my joints. Nor can I say what the perfection of Chopin's surging eighth notes moves within me. Or Louise's tender and nervous questions. It's almost a hunger that I feel, as if I could consume some essence of the music and the view--of her very person--and make it a part of me.

I cannot sleep: the power of insomnia to reduce everything to that simple, unnatural failing. I roll onto my side on the Thermarest pad. My bony hip presses into the hard ground below. The tape ends and clicks off. Louise twists in her sleeping bag, and her breathing catches, then resumes at a lower pitch. Still I cannot sleep. I find my flashlight at the edge of my pad. It lights a fuzzy beam in the air, refracts off the tent and continues into the darkness above. Louise's eyelids flutter. They are barely open. Is she awake? No, she seems to be dreaming behind the almost translucent layer of skin. I grope around inside my dop kit and find the bottles of pills at the bottom. I threw them into my bag at the last minute before leaving for Tucson.

I lean over and touch Louise's eyelid with the back of my finger--barely, almost imperceptibly, touching her. I graze my knuckle over her cheek, over this face that I have come to know these past six months. There is a tiny violet spider vein where a surface vessel has popped. Two small scars on her forehead from chicken pox as a child. A dark birthmark in the corner of her eye. Lines from laughter and from worry. I slide my hand around her neck--so thin!--and feel the tendons, the rings of the trachea, the strong, slow pulse. A two-year-old son when her husband died. Sixteen years of raising him alone. I think of all of this. All that is contained, the suffering and triumph. And I cannot sleep. I think of the diorama on the Bronco dashboard, of her strapping my pack tight to my back, rescuing Sophie from the Humane Society. I think of the questions she has just asked. And the thin terror courses down my limbs. I feel it in the tendons of my wrists and in my ankles. I zip the sleeping bag tight around me, an effort at containment. I pop open the bottle of Xanax and swallow a pill. We will hike out tomorrow morning. We will be in Denver by dinner.


THE NEXT MORNING, I wake thinking about Kim, and it takes me a moment to orient myself in these strange surroundings. Like in the months after your death, remembering follows closely on the heels of consciousness: I am in a tent in Colorado, you are gone, I am with Louise. Angled sunlight streams into the tent, and the shadows of wind-blown leaves mince all around us. The entire world seems yellow and green and teeming with life. Louise is seated on top of her sleeping bag next to me, gathering her things. "You were out," she says, and I wonder if I've left her any reason to suspect the Xanax.

Of all the people we knew, it was Kim who had the most in common with me in losing you. And yet there was a time, early in your cancer, when I actually resented her frequent visits to Kansas City--the implication that we couldn't handle things ourselves. I remember once coming home early from work to see how you were doing with a new regimen of chemo. Kim's shiny rental car was parked in our driveway, but the house was quiet when I called your names. Finally I heard your laughter on the second floor. I gathered my things and trudged up the stairs. I was surprised to find the door to our bedroom closed. I knocked briefly and then eased it open. You and Kim were sitting cross-legged on top of the bed facing each other. The sweet, pungent smell of marijuana was unmistakable.

"Busted!" you shouted as I stuck my head through the door.

Kim waved hello.

"What's going on here?"

"We're getting stoned." You lunged across the bed toward me, you're weight on one hand, the other offering me the joint. "Want a doobie?"

"What?"

"Your wife asked me if I could hook her up," Kim shrugged. You had told me enough about her wild days in the sixties for me to guess this much already.

"What the hell?"

"It's an antiemetic," you said.

"A what?"

"An antiemetic!"

"Do you have a prescription?"

"Oops." You covered your mouth with your hand and a thin, gray stream of smoke slid between your fingers. Then you both laughed until you were gagging to catch your breath.

"Damn it, Clara. Does your doctor know about this?"

I think what scared me most was the way you looked: your forced hilarity; your exaggerated, open-mouthed laughter; your eyes, bloodshot and glassy. It was as if you were being taken from me already. "Goddamn it. Does Dr. Mermann know about this?"

Kim stood up and grabbed my arm. "Conference time, Jonathon." She led me by the elbow into our adjoining bathroom. You sat on top of the billowing comforter, waving a cruise ship good-bye.

Kim closed the door behind us. "Jesus, Jonathon. With everything she's been through. Is it really that big a deal?" Your sister's face was flushed, her voice rising. "If all it does is make her laugh?" I could tell when she rolled up her long shirtsleeves that she was trying to calm herself down. She looked around our bathroom until her gaze came to rest on the suspended glass shelf with your different bottles of pills. Then Kim took my hand. "Look, I thank God she has you. I really do. But if I know my square older sister, she's going to start coming down in a couple minutes, and she's going to want you on her side. There's plenty she could get sad about right now."

Several times during the hike back to the Bronco and the winding drive out of the mountains, I want to tell Louise about that conversation. How your sister stood in our bathroom and told me about you. How she set her hand on our ancient copper sink and leaned into me. But I don't say anything to Louise. My chance to talk has passed, and I can tell from Louise's determined cheer that she means for me to see that she respects this decision. Our conversation is light and careful, exceedingly polite. The highway straightens out on the east side of the Rockies as we begin the steady descent into Denver. The roadside is littered with salt-stained motels, gas stations, ski rentals, all looking sadly abandoned in these last days of summer.

Kim was right, of course. I leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on my face. My own eyes were bloodshot in the mirror, the dark skin drooping below them. I toweled myself off and followed Kim back into our bedroom. "I have declared, by official decree, the legalization of marijuana." I swept my arm in a grand, blustery gesture before me. I joined you two on the bed, sitting with my back against the headboard. It wasn't long before you moved beside me. Sure enough, your hilarity soon subsided. Every few minutes you asked how long before the marijuana would wear off. You rested your head on my chest. And once, when your conversation turned morbid, Kim and I quickly changed the subject. Your sister and I shared a number of quiet looks that day and maybe even a chuckle or two at your expense.

THE FRONT DOOR SWINGS open before I can knock. Harvey greets me with his usual two-fisted old-world handshake as he glances over my shoulder at Louise. Suddenly I am the college freshman, self-conscious of the looks of my date. Kim emerges from the shadow of the entry hall and wraps me in an enormous bear hug. The sight of her brings tears to my eyes, and I can tell from the way she clenches my back, she feels it as well. We have not seen each other in more than a year, since the day after the funeral.

Behind me I hear Sophie's tags rattle as Harvey introduces himself. "You must be Louise." I know I'm being rude, holding Kim too long, not introducing Louise, but I need to clear my eyes--better that she wait to be introduced than see me this way.

I'm surprised to find Harvey and Louise hugging when I turn around, but of course, it's just like each of them.

"Louise, this is Kim." I touch Louise's hand as I guide her into the introduction. They hug as well. Sophie strains at her leash, pulling Louise's arm to the side, keeping a wild eye on Harvey.

"And who is this?" Kim turns to the dog, her one arm still around Louise's back.

"This is Sophie."

"You'll have to forgive her, she's not too crazy about men." I nod over Kim's head, in Harvey's direction. "It seems she's been burned in the past."

"She's from the Humane Society." Louise narrows her eyes at my joke. "I got her from the Humane Society."

Suddenly Harvey is crouched low, moving toward Sophie. "I don't believe it, you sweet thing." Harvey winks, half at the dog, half at Louise.

Sophie is worse than usual: her head twisted against the leash, her eyes bulging. When Harvey reaches out his hand, Sophie bares her teeth with a growl, her thin lips curling under. Harvey stumbles backward to his feet and I have to suppress a laugh: For once, I think, Sophie is showing good taste. My amusement is quickly tempered, however, when Louise's face colors a deep red.

Before I can speak, Kim has stepped in. "She's a beautiful dog." She pats Sophie on top of the head and is nuzzled and licked in return. Once again, memory burns my eyes: that remarkable gift for putting everyone else at ease. Already there is a sense of communion between Louise and Kim, each with a hand on Sophie's thick coat.

Kim leads Sophie through the kitchen to the back yard and we settle in the living room, around the glass coffee table. Harvey fixes drinks as we agree to save Louise's port until after dinner. He seems unusually gracious as he responds to Louise's compliments, motioning with his drink to the sky light and the exposed wood beams of the house he designed himself. Kim and I smile at each other as Louise and Harvey talk. In truth, we have trouble looking away from each other.

The boys announce themselves with a crash of the screen door. "Unc," they say, nearly in unison, the name they have called me forever. Martin, the younger one, the high school actor, is in front as usual, and he can't decide if he should shake my hand or hug me, and we come together awkwardly. Greg, the editor of the school newspaper, shakes my hand formally. They shake hands with Louise in turn, then stand at the edge of the couch rocking back on their heels. Finally Harvey says that he'll call them later for dinner. "Nice to meet ya," they call out as they bound up the stairs. It is clearly a family routine. And as Kim smiles unconsciously at their backs, I am shot through with a pang of wayward envy.

Before long Kim suggests that Harvey and I grill the chicken out back while "the girls" set the table and make the salad. Kim hooks Louise's arm as they stand up, and they walk out of the living room together.

As I carry the tray of chicken parts out to the patio, I am buoyed by Kim's good will. They will talk in the kitchen: Louise about her classroom, her third graders, Jeremy. About me. Soon we'll all eat together in the flattering glow of candlelight and best intentions. I stretch out on a lounge chair and pop a bottle of beer as Harvey places the chicken on the grill. The regular tipping of the bottle to my lips is as soothing as the alcohol itself.

Harvey finishes basting the chicken, then opens himself a beer. "You seem to be doing well for yourself." He lifts the bottle in my direction.

"Thanks," I say, returning his salute.

"What's it like to officially be on the market these days?"

Once when they visited us in Kansas City, Harvey and I sat in the bleachers at a Royals game. There, among feathered hair and beer bellies, we took off our shirts and drank Busch beer from yellow paper cups. Standing up after the top half of the seventh, Harvey turned to me, his face red from beer and sun. "Man," he said, "I'm jealous of you and Clara. You two have it all figured out. My life can get pretty complicated sometimes." I looked him square in the eye then and told him that life was only as complicated as you made it. After all, this man had created his own problems. He turned into a moping, sour drunk after that, falling asleep against the car door on the way home, but I have often wondered what I might have heard if I had humored him that day.

Now, I'm in no mood for the conversation to go in the direction he seems to be leading it. "Sophie sure gave you a hard time there," I laugh. "It took me almost two months to win her over."

"Two months? Jesus. Bet I can have her licking out of my hand by the end of the night." He closes the grill and walks toward Sophie in the corner of the yard. She is asleep, her body rising and falling rapidly, her nose tucked under her paw.

"Leave her be, Harvey. What's the point?"

"It's just conditioning. All I have to do is show her that nothing bad happens when I get close."

Harvey is on all fours, crawling across the grass, and suddenly things become clear to me--Harvey's stunt by the door, the almost subdued graciousness of before, his recent line of questioning--Harvey had been drinking for some time before we showed up.

Sophie wakes with a yelp and slinks to the other corner of the yard.

"Harvey, she's terrified of you."

Harvey jumps up and chases after her. "Come here, pup."

Sophie's nose is close to the ground, her hackles raised. She is visibly shaking. Harvey is cornering her in the far corner of the yard.

I push myself to my feet. "Enough already, Harvey."

Just as I reach him, Sophie panics. She streaks between us and runs across the yard. She leaps at the wooden fence, hitting the top of the six-foot fence with her front paws. Then she pulls herself over and disappears from view.

Harvey and I stare at the spot as if she might soar back into the yard at any moment.

"Jesus."

"Come on. Let's go get her." I can't help shaking my head at him, pursing my lips. When he starts for the kitchen, I stop him. "Can't we get out through the gate? I'd rather not get Louise all worked up."

Harvey nods, even now giving me a look that implies that we are in this together, partners in crime. And it strikes me that in some small way, I have just chosen sides. He walks quickly to the garage. Inside, I hear him banging around, moving metal cans, searching the shelves. This, from a man whose house is spotless. Finally he emerges, jangling the keys.

When, at last, he opens the gate, Sophie is nowhere to be seen. "You stay here," I say. "You'll just scare her off." I jog into the street. I stand in the middle of the empty street and squint into the descending darkness in both directions. "Sophie!" I call in a strained whisper, even now afraid that Louise will hear me in the kitchen. "Sophie!"

Harvey trots out to the street after me. His mouth is closed, his eyebrows knit. "I'm sorry, Jonathon," he says, facing me now in the street, "I really am."

I think of Louise in the kitchen, talking away. I think of the countless times we have petted the dog together. Positive conditioning, just as Harvey said. "You have no idea what that dog means to Louise."

"We'll get in our cars. I'm sure we'll find her."

When I don't respond, he says it again. "Come on. I'm sure we'll find her in no time."

"If only she hadn't had to bring the damn dog."

"Jonathon." He reaches out to wrap his fingers around my elbow. "There's no reason to blame this on Louise."

I turn to look the opposite way down the street, breaking his grip. "Sophie, come!" The heavy green elms limit my view.

"Jonathon?" Harvey's voice trails off behind me. There is that confiding tone in his voice--almost a plea--that I haven't heard since that day in the bleachers at Busch Stadium. "What are you so afraid of?" The question registers in my chest, a physical sensation, and then it seems to fall--endlessly, like in a dream. For a moment I hold my breath, but Harvey's question doesn't strike solid ground within me.

I brush past him toward the house. "Sophie!" I call one last time. Inside the front door, I pause. The dining room table is set. Spiral candles stand in sleek silver candleholders. The napkins are stuffed in Harvey's fluted water glasses in a way that can only be Louise's doing. What will I say? That Harvey cornered the dog in the yard, that together we terrified her into jumping the fence? I spill one of the Xanax into my hand and gulp it down without water.

It is Kim's eye I hold as I walk into the kitchen: We have long ago grown accustomed to reading bad news in each other's faces. And when Kim immediately registers the look, my chest aches with nostalgia--a nostalgia I wouldn't have thought possible--for the connectedness of those painful days. It's all I can do to force myself to look at Louise. "Honey, Sophie got out. We should get in the car and try to find her." There are two half-filled glasses of wine on the counter. I can tell from the pale lipstick on the rim which is Louise's.

Her hands fly to her face. "What happened?"

"I don't know, she must have found a way to push open the gate. All of a sudden we noticed she wasn't there."

"Where were you?"

"We'll take two cars," Kim says. "We'll find her in no time." Already she has a hand on Louise's shoulder. I know I should do the same, but I can't bring myself to. "Does she have tags on?" Kim says.

"With the area code in Kansas City." Louise locates the phone on the bar and pulls it to her. "Let me call someone to stay at my house?" Kim nods her on and Louise dials the phone without sitting on the stool at her hip. Harvey writes their phone number on a memo pad and places it gently at Louise's elbow. I watch from across the room. I can't help wondering who I could call on such short notice to stay at my house.

At last, I follow Louise down the front walk to the car. A light mist is thickening now in the darkness and the streets are wet and gleaming. Louise sits in the passenger side and immediately rolls down her window to yell for the dog. The diorama stands still on the dash between us: In some deep, pernicious part of me I want to point out that there's no dog in the model version.

"I'm sure we'll find her," I say.

I drive in slow circles around the residential neighborhoods while Louise yells out the open window. In between, she pulls her head inside the car. Her thin bangs are pressed moist and flat against her forehead, giving her an especially haggard expression. "Poor thing," she says, unconsciously, over and over again.

At the end of each unsuccessful block, I know the chances are less that we will find the dog tonight. I want to console Louise, but even more, I want to be out of the car, to run or swing my arms, to loose the tension building inside my chest. I flick the window wipers on and then off: If I leave them on too long, they grate loudly across the window; if I turn them off, the mist blurs my vision.

"I would call her," I say, "but I'm afraid I might just scare her off."

Louise nods and cranes her neck back out the window to yell again.

"I'm sure we'll find her, honey." I put my hand on top of Louise's on the seat, but her hand is clammy, barely responsive. I use the pretense of turning on the wipers to take my hand away.

We circle past Harvey and Kim's house, but they're still out looking. "I can't believe it," Louise says. "Of all nights."

"Everything's going to be all right." I click the wipers on and then off again. The clear window begins to cloud over.

"You think it's ridiculous, getting this worked up over a dog."

"I just think we'll find her," I say. "That's all."

"Clara would never get so worked up over something like this."

"This has nothing to do with Clara."

"And now I've gone and done it in front of her sister."

"Come on, Louise. Kim loves you."

"Kim loves you." Louise wipes the moisture off her face with a tissue from the glove box and then stares at me across the seat, her trembling pose both challenging and imploring. The balled-up tissue is cupped still in her hand. "She is Clara's sister and she loves you."

"We are looking for Sophie, part collie, part chow. Four legs. A dog." I pound my palm like a gavel on the steering wheel as I stare at the shining road ahead. All I want is to be out of this car.

There is silence for a minute, the hum of tires on wet pavement, the thin splatter of water from the Bronco's wheels. Like in the tent, I'm aware of Louise's breathing. I try to make my voice gentle: "Let's stop here so we can call your house and see if there's any word."

I swing the car into a diner parking lot. "You make some calls, I'll walk around a few blocks--maybe I'll see her." I yank up the emergency brake and flip the car door open before Louise has a chance to answer.

Louise steps out of the Bronco into the artificial white light of the parking lot. Her face hangs flat--the bags under the eyes, the jowls of loose skin--and her hands are rid of their usual kinetic energy. Even the airplanes dangling from her ears seem hobbled.

The diner is the only commercial establishment in an otherwise residential neighborhood, and the streets beyond are quiet. I call for the dog. "Here, Sophie." Three times I call. But the strained sound of my own voice against the empty streets is too much to bear and soon I walk on in silence. The buildings of the first two blocks are close to the street, flat, mostly two-family duplexes, but as I walk in the direction of Harvey and Kim's, the houses are further removed from the sidewalk, the lawns manicured, the streetlights fewer. Downtown Denver is five or six miles to the south, and the light reflects off of the uniformly gray sky above. Sophie has been gone more than an hour now.


WHAT WOULD IT BE like to walk these glistening streets free of everyday concerns? I think sometimes that you knew, Clara. The years of suffering set you apart. The years of facing your own death.

I will turn around and head back to the diner, to Louise, to the routines and sign posts that I now call my life. The life I once had, the life I've wanted so desperately to recreate with someone else, I relinquished even before you died.

At some level, I think you knew. I had just finished sorting the mail, brushing my teeth, turning off all but the hall light downstairs when you called from the hospital. You wanted ice cream. "Something chocolate," you said. I could hear the hospital machines beeping in the background.

"Sure, I'll pick it up on my way home from work."

"No," you paused, "I meant tonight."

"Honey, it's eleven o'clock. I've barely been able to stay awake the past three days at work. Tomorrow's just a test. An easy one. You'll be home by dinner."

"I thought that instead of doing laps you could bring me some ice cream. Maybe we'll walk circles around the ninth floor here." You forced a laugh. Before, when my insomnia had been only an occasional nuisance, we would joke about my late-night tours of our house. Sometimes I would pencil a landscape on my sketchpad and leave it at your place at the table. That was before the cancer, before the pills, and my sleepless hours seemed almost like a gift, a window through which only I could look out at the world. "I just feel like some ice cream."

"Tomorrow's an easy one, honey."

"If you say that one more time. I don't know what the hell that means."

I glanced at the quivering red numbers of our digital clock. Automatically, I calculated the hours until morning. I considered the bottle of Valium in my night stand drawer, but I could feel myself getting out of bed, swinging my feet onto the floor. "Chocolate?"

"Chocolate."

I had left you that night, Clara. Even as we walked around the hospital floor, you in your blue hospital gown, eating ice cream with a plastic spoon, me dragging your IV, I had sealed myself against your fate. The next day's procedure was nothing, an injection then a long x-ray, certainly nothing compared to the countless operations and tests you had been through already. All things considered, it was a fairly good time for you, symptomless, and we had no way of knowing that you would be gone in less than four months.

"I feel fine and I'm supposed to be dying," you said at some point. "You feel terrible and you're fine. I appreciate the empathy really." Again, you made yourself laugh. You were the child of Jewish immigrants: As a baby your father was hidden in the house of a crazy Russian woman; the superstitious Cossacks thought she was a witch and left him alone. There was a long tradition in your family of using humor and irony to undermine the enemy. But I, needless to say, am from less resilient stock--I heard only the accusation in your voice.

"I'm not in the mood to laugh at that."

"That's too bad. I could really use some laughter right now. The doctor said that I'm in perfect health except for the fact that I'm dying." You were my tether, Clara, my only real friend, but I could no longer love you. How I went through the motions those final months, I'll never know.

Forgive me when I say that I thank God it wasn't longer.

The mist has thickened into a drizzle as I approach the diner. I can see Louise at a booth inside. The rain streaks down the diner window, and through it Louise's face seems painfully distorted and drawn out. She holds her coffee close to her lips with both hands wrapped around the mug. Finally she tilts the mug to take a sip.

When I see Louise walk to the pay phone, I step inside the diner and slide into the booth opposite her coffee. Louise shoulders the wall, facing away from me with her head down, the silver phone cord stretched flush against her neck. She hangs up the phone and walks back to the booth. She sits across from me without a word. And then, without a word, she takes her coffee cup to the counter for a refill. Louise who, announces everything.

When she returns to the booth with her full mug of coffee, I pull myself up in the seat. I brace my shoulders. I know what I must do; in some way I know that I owe it to you, Clara, to try. I reach across the Formica and take Louise's hands in mine. At first she tries to pull away. She twists her fingers, but I am firm. My heart pounds against the front of my chest, but I don't let go of Louise's hands. I look into her bleary eyes and tell her that we will find Sophie before we leave Denver. I tell her that I'm sorry. Please, my face says. Please, Louise, take this from me. The diner is a precipice now, full of sound and movement I can't grasp. I tighten my grip on Louise's fingers. And then, as I hold her, a miracle; the tension ebbs from Louise's hands. She shapes her fingers to mine and I feel her take in my words. I feel them settle in her body, the weight of her solitude subsiding with my touch.

No. I don't do any of these things. I don't so much as look up when Louise slides silently into the booth opposite me.

Instead I reach into my pocket and pull out the bottles of pills. I spill them onto the table between us. With my trembling forefinger, I slide the white tablets into neat lines, one line above the next, seven across. Sophie could be anywhere. Roaming the streets, curled up asleep in the gutter, in some nice woman's home. Hit by a car. She could be miles away in any direction. No, Clara, we will not find Louise's dog tonight. Tomorrow has become unimaginable to me. Maybe this is the reason I push the pills into orderly lines of seven on the table in front of me: Sunday to Saturday across, the calendar of my days.

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