1. They Would Have to Build a Town
They would have to build a town, stat. Bill Bird watched a stroke of sand drift from his fingers. Gulls squalled over the barren beach. Marram grass, salt-crusted and limp with humidity, nodded in the hot wind like barflies on Sunday morning.
Besides Oswaldo Fudge, Bill hadn’t seen another person on the island. Bill hated Oswaldo. He tried to remember if he had actually hated someone before. Maybe when he was a kid. He wished Oswaldo nothing but the worst. Like, if they didn’t need to build a town here he would absolutely take that dinghy back to the coast and leave Oswaldo marooned forever like they did in stories. He’d do that in a heartbeat.
They’d driven as far east as they could go and then they’d had to drive back to Holly Ridge to lift a dinghy off of one of the town’s twenty-seven residents. Strapping a dinghy to the roof of Oswaldo’s Roadmaster had been a comedy of errors. And then they’d driven as far east as they could go, again.
Oswaldo probably slept with his mother. He was just so anxious to be tenured. He was just unequivocally certain that they could trust the coastal map they’d unearthed from the viscera of the University library. They’d never even heard of the cartographers!
Grateful that none of their colleagues were there to see it, they’d managed to steer the little boat to the last piece of land between their bootsoles and Casablanca. That’s where they found nobody and, for that reason, would have to build a town. Like, stat. Which made Bill wonder, how did one go about doing that? Building a town?
It seemed like a lot of work.
For a moment, it had been like a dream. There was talk of Bill being appointed as an Assistant Professor. Which was big. He was still riding the high of his success when he received a letter from some Hugh Francis and some Nikki Argus, who were threatening litigation. Why? Because Bill’s map unquestionably plagiarized the map they—Francis and Argus—had published several years earlier. Unquestionably how? Drive to Fraus, their letter instructed, and see what you find there. (Could Bill carefully repair the envelope and Return to Sender?) Hence the dinghy and hence Oswaldo Fudge pacing desolate beach like true asshole and hence sad sand fleeting through Bill’s fingers. Oh no, oh no, says Oswaldo, we’re really fucked now, we should have taken the extra month, driven the extra miles, boo hoo, now we are really truly fucked, bla bla bla, what are we going to do?
What they did was: tactfully, thoroughly deplete their reserves of influence to steer the University, in partnership with the United States Navy, to just the most perfect island where the United States Navy, in partnership with the University, could establish a permanent home for their guided missile development program well outside of the public eye and even throw up a bridge and a handful of human-made structures in the process, on which Bill Bird and Oswaldo Fudge might hang a sign or two declaring the town’s irreplicable name as it had always, unmistakably been: Fraus. And then some Hue Franwhatever and some Nick Argyle, amateur mapmakers whose names would be—already had been!—lost to the sands of time, could suck Bill’s big fat—
2. The Operation Concluded
The Operation concluded in 1948; the launch pads were repurposed as a motel patio and a roller rink. The first guests—newly-weds and families from Wilmington to Winston-Salem—buried the lean years behind them in nightly rounds of Sidecars and shrimp cocktails and fruit cocktails and Singapore Slings. Bill moved his twin sister into a simple but expansive cottage on the head of the island, where the Intracoastal Waterway touched the Atlantic Ocean and glittered.
Matilda Bird was kookie. She was curious. Never felt home anywhere, didn’t want a husband, floated on the fringes. Reborn in those untamed maritime forests and long blank stretches of beach. Immediately she began. She began without an outcome in mind. She would transform her home into something that, decades later, would become a kind of unconventional art museum. Under Matilda’s brush the clapboards became a mosaic. Ingrid Bergman greeted the sea—a true cubist icon. She didn’t even realize cubism was passé. She wouldn’t have even cared if someone had told her that cubism was passé. She painted four toilets to resemble Victorian parlor chairs and arranged them around her kitchen table. She put fake telephones on the wall beside the real telephone, assembled false appliances and interspersed them with their functional counterparts. Visitors—there were some—had trouble finding where to wash their hands or turn on a light. Besides guarding access to secret knowledge, Matilda liked nothing so much as feeling disoriented in places that had become too familiar. Her home offered a continuous reminder that anything could be anything else.
On her seventieth birthday Matilda sold her cottage to the City of Fraus and moved to Raleigh to live with her brother. She would never return to the coast. She began taking trips to the western part of the state, admiring the blue ridges and telling tourists that she had hiked there from Maine. Had they heard of the Appalachian Trail? She liked people’s faces, their big eyes, twining them around her finger.
3. He Wasn’t Laughing
He wasn’t laughing. Damn. She regretted saying it and scrutinized the buttons on her Sony Walkman for seven whole dings. On the eighth floor they paused at the crazy lady’s apartment. She didn’t read the headlines on the News & Observer; he didn’t make loud squeaking sounds with his Doc Martens to drive Crazy Lady’s dog into a fit of primordial rage. No paper today, no Docs. No dice. Just two pairs of shoes on Crazy Lady’s Dachsund-shaped welcome mat: some old hiking boots with red laces and a couple of crummy Nikes. Green swooshes. They stood there looking. They could take them, she thought.
“We could take them,” he said.
In his apartment she opened a beer and kicked off her heels. He tossed his jacket on the floor. The sky pouted in the windows and he fumbled with the lampswitch until the room’s fuzzy shapes turned hard. She liked him in a suit. Did she feel guilty about that? She did not feel guilty about that. Her position was, thinking about sex during a funeral wasn’t less moral than trying to imagine how some distant relation had taken their coffee or influenced waste management legislation or how she might’ve felt if she’d met them in springtime or heard them play that set at Sloppy Lager back in the good old days. In the midst of death, life? Right? And sex, being one of the good things in life, was an eminently acceptable place for one’s mind to wander during their partner’s step-uncle’s funeral, AKA celebration of life, right? Sure. Sure it was. The main thing, as a general principle, was to cover your losses. And if you’d already lost, say, anything, the main thing was to make something or take something to plug up the holes when they gaped.
“What do we do now?” She said.
He shrugged. “We can’t wear them around.” He was loosening the lip of his oxford.
“Why did we take them?”
“We both took them.” Hadn’t they? The oxford popped. He wiggled his toes in taco patterned socks.
“Well, we can’t wear them around.” He picked up one of the Nikes and curled his toes and in they went. “A little big,” he said, fingering the space behind his heel. “Not bad, though.”
“Let’s go away for a minute,” she said. She’d finished her beer fast and she felt glitter in the roots of her hair. “You’ve already called out for the rest of the week. It’d be good for you to get away.”
4. The Coast was Sleepy
The coast was sleepy. Crossing the Sound felt like crossing into Narnia or something. Just something totally separate. He used to have this dream where he’d run into his parents’ bedroom and into their office and into their closet and then he’d slip between the checkered button-downs and behind them he’d enter the kitchen of this fish sandwich joint with yellow Slippery Floor signs and through the swinging doors a renaissance gallery with gold accents and oil paintings and then he’d rush to the room’s far edge and out onto the balcony where he’d kneel on a velvet banquette to overlook the universe, like a periscope extending out of the moon with stars scattered in the blank dark on every side of him.
He wondered why “sound” meant both noise and water. Which word came first? Noise seemed more fundamental than water, because the Big Bang had to have been pretty loud, but then wouldn’t you have to have humans to perceive vibrations in order for there to be sound sound, like noise? So probably water came first. Janice was saying something.
“Carl? Hey? Hello? Can you please do something about this static.” Janice had been smacking the tuner like the captain of a quick recall team and they’d skidded in and out of static since at least Holly Ridge. Carl liked the ambiguity, though. He pressed the power button and rolled down their windows.
“We’re just about here.”
The island reminded him of an appendix—something that had had a purpose, he guessed, at some point, and then had just kind of hung around, taking up space. He imagined it rusting comprehensively, becoming unmoored, becoming smaller and smaller as it floated toward the rising sun. Their cottage was cozy and Janice was surprised by how well the boots fit, like a blind date that clicks despite the odds. Dirt flaked from the laces as she spun red loops into knots. She hopped-skipped around the kitchen doing these little poses. God, he loved Janice. Her blunt bangs and her black bob and the way she flicked her fingers beneath the tap water to gauge its temperature and the way she flicked her tongue around a glass’s circumfrence before taking a sip. She made a face. He took the glass from her hand and set it on the linoleum countertop. He was tugging her shirt tail out from her jeans when somebody knocked.
“Goddammit,” she said.
He squeezed, pressing his thumbs into her tummy. “It’s fine. It’s fine.”
5. At the Door He Hesitated
At the door he hesitated. He looked at her as though for confirmation that he was doing this right. They knocked again. He twisted the knob.
The woman wore an orange t-shirt embroidered with a pair of flip flops. Life is Good, its sun-colored letters insisted. She looked overbaked, as though emerging from some equatorial summer, though it was May and domestic as Pepsi around here. Her blonde ponytail spurted from a scrunchie that crowned her like a wreath. She couldn’t have been much older than her, Janice thought. But there were wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“I lost my son. Have you seen him?”
“Uh,” Carl started. “We just got here. We. We haven’t seen him.”
The woman’s eyes moved between the people in the doorway. She flattened her palm on the air beside her breast. “He’s this tall. Looks just like me.”
He shook his head. “We haven’t seen, uh.”
The woman’s throat bobbed. Time dilated and loudly pulsed.
“I’m Amber,” she said. “Like the color.” She dangled her hand like something that might be slapped away.
Carl shook it. “Carl.”
Janice shook it. “Melanie.”
Carl looked at her. Janice picked at a piece of lint on her sleeve.
“We could get your number,” said Carl. “You know, in case.” He walked into the kitchen and started opening drawers.
Amber stepped inside. She smelled like smoke. Janice wondered if she should act hospitable. If Carl didn’t say something in the next fifteen seconds she would say—what? Something. One mississippi. Two. She would say something in twenty seconds. One mississippi.
Carl ripped a sheet out of the yellow pages. He brought Amber a pen. Don’t forget your area code, he said.
Amber scribbled something in the margin.
“Good luck with, um, everything.”
Then she left.
Carl locked the door and looked at Janice. He gave her his incredulous-but-amused face. “Um, what?”
Janice rolled her eyes. “What difference does it make?” Because, honestly, what difference did it make?
“I don’t get you sometimes.”
“What’s there to get? I did something you didn’t expect. I didn’t expect it. But there must have been a reason, because I did it.”
They went to the grill. They sat at the bar, ate fried eggs and onion rings. Autographed photos of fish and men littered the wall opposite them. Janice was studying Dale Gooch holding a 113-pound Wahoo in July of 1951 when the man next to her pointed his fork at the picture below it and swallowed whatever he’d been chewing and said “that’s my daddy there.” He looked at Janice like an old friend. “He caught that Spanish Mackerel the summer my baby brother was born, if you can believe it. Seven point one pounds, fought like hell.”
Carl leaned in. “The fish or your brother?” He smelled like Speed Stick.
“Uh huh,” said the man. Janice poked at the bulging yolk on her plate.
“You know, it’s funny—”
Bells tinkled behind them. The man perked up and looked over his shoulder.
“That’s a real sad thing,” he said, as though continuing a conversation that he’d set down elsewhere. He nodded toward the woman approaching the host stand. “Lost her daughter yesterday. Poof.”
Janice glanced at the deeply tanned woman with a straw-colored ponytail and frowned. Carl looked concerned.
“Anyhow, you know kids. Always some mischief.” The man was pushing a heap of hash browns around the rim of his plate. “I’m sure she’ll turn up after she’s got her kicks.”
After breakfast they became acquainted with all of the souvenirs that could be shaped like a starfish. Treasure Island Gift Shoppe sold muted pastel t-shirts, Reagan-Bush ‘84 koozies, packets of Big League Chew that expired in 1981. Janice maintained that the sea urchin charm was the most compelling, though Carl liked the shark-wearing-a-coconut-bra charm best. In the streets of Delhi they’d touched at least a thousand trinkets, debating the aesthetic merits of a string of mala beads or a figurine depicting Vishnu on a bed of snakes. She’d laughed until mango lassi came out of her nose while he explained how this thin, phallic buddha statue was a replica of those 108 that Siddhartha himself had commissioned, which he had railed like fence posts into the ground to form a circle around his bodhi tree. Janice had been hesitant when Carl suggested Dharamshala as the destination for their first trip together. She trusted him, but what if they snapped under the stresses of traveling and unraveled on the opposite side of the world?
But he’d convinced her. He’d wanted to meet the Dalai Lama and she became curious to see traces of a country that was daily paling into myth. She’d admired his spontaneity and optimism; he’d admired her attention to detail and pursuit of context. They’d stay the night in the Capital before flying north the next morning; their rickshaw, commissioned to bring them to a hotel—any hotel—cruised every street in the city before depositing them at a travel agency. A national holiday—an election—an important event—every room booked or closed. The agent, one of those people who tries to get close fast, had offered them tea and then hash. His Hawaiian shirt had commanded the dingy fluorescent room.
While Carl strummed the cheap blue guitar he’d bought that afternoon the map spun off the wall beside Janice, swirling around and pinning her to that folding chair like a tilt-a-whirl where the floor drops out. A phone cord wrapped the agent’s finger while he rang the airport. Snow in the mountains—flights canceled for a week, at least—twenty thousand rupees for a jeep ride through the night. Carl was a picture of sentiment and gratitude. Which alarmed Janice. Like in the Wizard of Oz when the world shrieks into color then everyone showers in asbestos. She gripped the cold metal seat as though it would stop the roads and the rivers and the Lines of Control and Actual Control from streaming around her, choking her delicate frame. No, no, no, she’d shouted. I don’t believe. I—. We have to leave.
Carl spread a towel on the beach. Janice stretched out in a tide pool. She tunneled her feet into the sand until they vanished, fingering the laces on the boots beside her. “That woman yesterday,” she said. Carl tilted his head toward her. She couldn’t tell if his eyes were opened or closed under his sunglasses.
“Yeah?” He said. “Wasn’t that her in the grill this morning?”
Janice nodded. “Didn’t she tell us she’d lost her son?”
“I think so.” He combed his fingers through the sand. “I think that guy got the details mixed up.”
“That’s a pretty significant detail to mess up.”
Carl shrugged. “I saw some kind of fun house when I went walking this morning. At the end of the island. Did you hear that NASA released the first photo from Hubble yesterday?”
“Do you not find it strange?”
“What, space? I saw it in the paper. Didn’t look like much.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“One star kind of resembled a dot and the other kind of resembled a snowman abandoned without a head.”
Janice glared at him.
Carl rolled his eyes. Then he filled his cheeks with air and exhaled slowly, forcefully. “Who are you accusing, Janice?”
The museum had been disappointing. It was a house—she tried to remember how it went—but in any case it was like a pyramid now, with a central room nested in a slightly larger room that was nested in another and so on and so forth. The center room was triangular, no wider than your arm span. Each wall was covered in fire alarms. They looked identical except some were all red and some were all gray. And all super retro, like they were yanked off the walls of that high school in Grease. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the distribution. If you pulled any of them, Janice learned, the door would close and the floor would begin lowering and plastic citrus fruits would come pouring in, like a ball pit. Janice and Carl had clung to each other as they’d gone down. When the lemons were up to their waists the floor stopped. Then a little compartment had opened beside them and the balls drained out and then the floor went back up. In the throne room a toilet had been made to look like an old fashioned chair. Janice thought that was gross.
After dinner the last artifacts of light withered over the ocean. Janice flopped into a rocking chair on the porch and opened a collection of short stories she’d recently received from a college friend. The accompanying piece of stationary fluttered out and she leaned down to retrieve it. Facts are not everything, the loose cursive alleged.
Carl rocked beside her and played around with her Walkman. Then he cracked the knuckles in all of his fingers and all of his toes and then he paced. Janice had read the same line a dozen times now. But she was not going to snap. She would not snap. Would she come with Carl to the local bar? She would not. Five minutes later, he asked again. Ten minutes later, he slid into his Nikes. Would she join him later, if she changed her mind? Yeah, yes, okay.
Alone, she felt relieved. The tide was falling; the beach deepened like the blank dome of someone’s head beneath a receding hairline. It was as though he closed doors simply by existing in her proximity. She couldn’t point to any particular thing he did or said—but he wasn’t even closing doors. She was closing doors when he came close enough. Gradually she’d forgotten that she was cramped, out in that narrow hallway where sunlight leaked in for forty minutes every day and now and then she touched a doorknob wistfully. Where did doubt germinate? What infinitely subtle tension at the corners of his eyes, what split-second oscillation in his tone had done this to her? One wanted to preserve one’s self, after all. One could never be sure how much the other was giving, or how much they would take if they had the chance.
9. Human Behavior
Except for the Silent Generation, marine life, and the fundamental drivers of human behavior, the bar was older than anything on the island. Operation Rumblebee redeemed a retired observation tower where they’d traced missiles as they shot off the continent in the wake of World War Two. Inside it was cramped. The single room measured somewhere between a dive bar and a linen closet. The air, like the postwar-themed cocktails, tasted salty and laborious. The bartender grew up in the same small town as Carl, who was drinking Berlin Airlifts and wiggling his toes in the empty place in his shoes. Carl watched the bartender slide ice cube trays beneath the faucet, then observed that the ice in his own drink had dwindled into pebbles. He attempted to stir them using one of the American flag toothpicks that were stacked beside the limes.
The first thing was pleasure. It preceded his perception of pressure, which preceded the knowledge that something was rubbing against him. Everyone was touching. People were like squares on a Rubix cube—people were like the universe, really—moving, but where? But there was a kind of sustained pressure now, and it pleased him, and he was not yet conscious of the woman who wanted him, who had been watching him and wanting him very badly and who now was very close.
“Where ya from?” The woman faced him. The pressure subsided. It felt like losing something precious. He was suddenly, confoundingly sad.
“I’m Cara,” she said. “People call me Cara Cara. You know, like the orange.” Her skin was orange and slick. Carl had read an article about orange. There wasn’t even a word for the color until the Moors brought the fruit to Spain. Before someone had dethroned someone else (Who had dethroned whom? He couldn’t remember.), a dab of sun on the world’s rim had merely loitered in the hinterland between red and yellow. Perhaps they’d called it flame vine or monarch or denoument. She ran her fingers through her damp yellow hair until they snagged. For a moment she tried to force them through a knot and Carl found this painful to watch.
“Hi Cara.” He tried to focus on the scrunchie on her wrist.
She extended her hand. It hung loosely in the air. Carl grasped it and kind of moved it around.
“What’s your name?”
“Cara,” he said. “I mean, Carl. Like, um, Marx.”
Cara giggled. She touched his arm. “Are you hot? You want to go upstairs?”
Carl had thought that they were upstairs. Was he hot? He tried to feel. He guessed he felt hot; he couldn’t say with any certainty. He was moving toward the exit, it seemed, without volition, as though lofted by the will of—what? Some spirit? Some god? Some fate divined in clumps of space dust? He could never tell. The room was an organism; it spit him out.
10. On the Roof She Was Expansive
On the roof she was expansive. The moon draped her arms like fabric, like the ocean. It was impossible to say what the moon was like against her arms—it changed each time he looked. Somewhere a radio played an old Drifters song. He remembered his mom teaching him to shag dance when he was a kid. Behind the roller rink the tide had roared and surged beneath Ben King’s magic voice. Triple step, triple step, rock step. Triple step, triple step, she’d guided him, twirling him around.
“I love this song,” Cara whispered. She whisked her hair into a fountainous ponytail and her dress shifted over the contours of her body. He tried not to look at her breasts. “Under the boardwalk, by the seeeeaaa, yeah-uh yeah-uh,” she crooned. She smelled like Black & Milds and too-ripe fruit.
Recently, in the waiting room of his dentist’s office, Carl had watched a Discovery Channel program on voles—those rodents from the Midwest. Prairie voles, the little empaths, associated pleasure with the smell of a single lady-vole—he imagined a family of bonnet-clad, hamster-esque creatures delivering a covered wagon across the earnest Cimarron—while meadow voles fucked indiscriminately. Something about receptors and oxytocin. He felt vaguely confident that the program’s narrator had intended to develop an analogy for human behavior but for the life of him he couldn’t remember the conclusion. She kissed him. When he noticed the scattered stars he felt ashamed, like he was a character in a parable whose vanity, the story went, would fuel his sorry attempt to dodge the cosmic judiciary. His mouth burned. He imagined firing rockets into the void, escalating toward some situation that could not be taken back. Red tails flaming through the weird unfathomable night.
Carl felt like someone had wrenched his head out of a swimming pool. Janice.
11. First and Enduring Regret
Janice’s first and enduring regret, when the crazy lady stepped into the elevator on the second floor on Sunday evening, was wearing her boots in the ocean. They were dark with damp and crusted with sand. A strand of seaweed poked out from one twisted, currant-colored lace. “Bill,” Crazy Lady said. “Come on, Bill.”
Bill entered the elevator tongue-first, dragging his hind legs and scratching his belly on the tile. Crazy Lady wore hot pink ASICS. She turned toward Janice.
“My brother’s name is Bill, funny enough. He retired on Friday.”
“Oh, good for him,” Janice said. Then she froze. Then she said, “What did he do?”
“I don’t know, but he did it for about fifty years.” Crazy Lady smiled at Janice. Crazy Lady seemed very pleased. Janice tried to imagine the kind of person who would name their Dachshund Bill.
Crazy Lady looked at Bill, who was now prancing and doing these little jumps. Then her eyes traveled across the floor of the elevator. Janice could have watched an entire episode of Unsolved Mysteries in the time it took this elevator to climb six stories—each ding felt like someone was driving an ice pick into her brain. Wait, what was that? Was Crazy Lady frowning? She must have been suspicious. She was definitely squinting. Was she? She was very subtle. No, she wasn’t. She would say something. Wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t Janice?
Inside his apartment she took them off and clapped them together over the bathtub. Sand shook from them like salt. He was sleeping on the sofa with her collected fictions spread over his face. She plucked it off and reviewed the open page. The janitress was following her upstairs with her purse in her hand and the same deep red fire flickering in her eyes. The janitress thrust the purse towards her while they were still a half dozen steps apart, and said: “Don't never tell on me. I musta been crazy. I get crazy in the head sometimes, I swear I do. My son can tell you.”
She took the purse after a moment, and the janitress went on: “I got a niece who is going on seventeen, and she's a nice girl and I thought I'd give it to her. She needs a pretty purse. I musta been crazy, I thought maybe you wouldn't mind, you leave things around and don't seem to notice much.”
Janice tossed the book onto the coffee table. She looked around Carl’s apartment. A single lamp burned in the corner of the living room and nothing, she realized, looked familiar to her—it was as though she had wandered into the home of a stranger. Had she seen this rug before, with all of this dizzying geometry? Yes, she had, but it had never been so overwhelming as it was now. This must be what the Minotaur had felt like, she thought—one day free, the next day at the heart of a labyrinth sprawling in every direction. She lay down beside Carl, whom she’d once known intimately, and gradually slipped from bewilderment into sleep.
12. Say She Wakes to a Sound as Sharp as a Knife
Say she wakes to a sound as sharp as a knife. Describe how it cuts in waves, how he seals his ears with sweaty palms. Say she glances at the microwave, say it’s 3:14 a.m., say she improvises some variation of Carl what the fuck. Describe how he flaps his elbows and lunges toward the door. Say the hallway does not smell like smoke.
Imagine septuagenarians in bathrobes. Imagine twentysomethings in oversized Nirvana t-shirts. Imagine septuagenarians in frills and straps milling around on the sidewalk. Of course, imagine dogs. Paco the Pekingese. Cha Cha the Chow Chow. Bedlam the Bedlington Terrier, little lamb. Bill. Big men in chartreuse stripes and helmets dashing from stern gleaming scarlet engines toward a building that hasn’t burned and won’t. Questions down the block.
Hoses? Do we need hoses? No, no hoses. False alarm. Ha. No pun intended. Someone was confused.
And there she is, in the middle of everything.
Say she looks at her, nudges him. Look.
A practical joke, a practical joke
she says. Say she shuffles around, this ancient
woman in girlish ASICS, tuning the witching
hour to some obscure frequency. Say she says
to the big men in hard hats, This is all practically a joke,
and looks around. Don't you agree?
Imagine her scanning the faces. Don't you?
Imagine the dogs! Don't you agree?
Say she sees them. Don't you?
Say she looks in their faces, their eyes. Don't you agree?
Does she find their shoes familiar? Don't you?
The green swoosh? Don't you?
The spent leather, the cherry lace? Don't you find them?
Say she looks them in the eye, one Don't you?
and then the other Don't you just want to pull it sometimes?
Under the blue and righteous moon Don't you want to?
does she spin them like dolls Yes?
until they know she knows and know Sometimes?
they do not know? Yes.
She does. Don't you?