Authors: Richard Ford
“What's this, a fucking Honda? An itchy pussy?” Arnie leans against my car door, as if he's amused by its sky-blue paint job and plastic fenders.
“Hyundai,” I say uncomfortably, but take a wrong step on the sandy incline, my toes prickly-numb, my socks damp with sand, my hands clammy. I pitch then half over onto my side, though not all the way onto my face. Not a true fall. “Shit. This fucking sand.” I'm balanced like Arnie's houseâhalf on my ass, half on my handâtrying to get my feet under me so I can get off this goddamn sand pillar. I'm afraid of wrenching my neck. Possibly I should roll the rest of the way down.
Arnie's taken no notice. “A hybrid, I suppose.” He's still appraising my car. “Like you, Frank.” He's all of a sudden supremely satisfiedâwith something. Dismay and house grief have vanished in the fog. I'm getting myself back on my feet. But has something happened? Is it what I fearedâArnie's turning on me? Possibly he's packing a PPK and will simply shoot me for once selling him a house that's now worth chicken feed. I've let myself in for this. Men are a strange breed.
“A hybrid of what, Arnie,” I say with difficulty. “What am I a hybrid of?”
“I'm yanking your schwantz, Frank. You look a little peakÃ¨d. You takin' care of yourself?” I'm down off this berm now, my shoes full of cold sand, my ass damp. Arnie, for his part, looks robust, which was what his cosmetic work was in behalf of. He looks to have swelled out his chest a few centimeters and deepened his voice. I don't like being said to be peakÃ¨d. “You oughta do yoga, Frank.”
I'm back on his level, though unsteady. “I let the machine maintain itself, Arnie.”
“Okay,” Arnie says. “Probably smart.” He's possibly thinking about his cosmetic work in contrast to peakÃ¨d me. New grille. New bumpers. In my view, though, Arnie looks like somebody who
used to be
Arnie Urquhart. Age and change have left him squirrelly, and unpredictableâto himself. This is what I witness.
I come to stand beside my Sonata's front headlamp. I'm Christmas cold. Arnie's blocking my path back inside nowâunless I want to go around and crawl in the passenger door. I'd like to get in and crank up the heat. But I don't want to seem to want to leave. Arnieâwax-works weirdness and allâis still a man who's lost his house, endured an insult I haven't. He's deserving of a little slack being cut. Our sympathies are most required when they seem least due.
Fog's retreated toward the water's edge, as if the tide change has created a vacuum. A tangy fish stink is all around. I look up through the blue-white mist and can see another Air-Tran jet spiriting upward. I've heard it but haven't registered.
“I need to act quick, I guess,” Arnie says, back to his house and the charade that I'm here for real reasons. “That's the way, isn't it?”
“Sometimes,” I say, finding the warm hood surface with my hand.
“Fish business is the same. âLet it sit, you might as well quit. Then you're in the shit.'”
I smile, as if that idea sized up all of life. “It's better than âhurry up and wait.'”
“That's the old man's mantra.” Arnie sniffs, looks down at his own spoiled shoes.
At this small distance of five feet, not looking at him, but letting my eyes roam anywhere but into contact with his, Arnie (in my fervid mind) has magically become not himself, but another boy I also went to Michigan withâTapper Spitz. I used to bump into Tap in the strangest of places over the years. The Mayo Clinic urology waiting room. The Philadelphia airport cell-phone lot. On the sidewalk outside the My Office bar on Twenty-First and Madison. Tap was likewise a Wolverine puckster. He and Arnie probably knew each other. What did the poet tell us? “All memory
resolves itself in gaze.” It's much easier at this stressed, empty moment to imagine I'm out here with ole Tapper than that I'm out here with ole Arn. I happen to know Tapman L. Spitz died doing the thing he loved bestâpara-skiing down the Eiger on his sixty-fifth birthday. RIP ole Tapper.
“My wife doesn't like it down here.” Arnie/Tapper snuffles his big, as-yet-unaltered schnoz, then folds his thick armsânot easy in his severely tailored mafia coat. He's staring again up at his house, as if it was where it belonged. I'm supposed to know he means his
wife, not the nice, plump-pastie Ishpeming girl I met at the closing, who seemed pleased with life. He shakes his head. “She won't even come down here.”
“A reason to cut it loose,” I say. Tapper's already sadly fading back where he came from. His service rendered.
Arnie's voice is lonely. He's still leaning on my car door, blocking me. A gull has spied us and begun a savage, rhythmical screeching.
Get off the beach, you assholes! It's ours! We want it back. You did your worst. BEAT IT!
“What's the most mysterious thing you know, Frank?” Arnie says, and looks speculative, his lacquered cheeks fattened. He's ready for our conversation to be over, he just doesn't know how to end itâhis brain speeding ahead to thoughts of growing his fish business, luring his diplomat daughter home to run things, getting his young wife to take more interest in
interests, having things work out better than his makeover makes him feel. His wrecked house, I'm certain, will be gone by New Year's.
“I don't know, Arnie. What universe is our universe inside of? Why do so many people have pancreatic cancer all of a sudden? How does a thermos work? I could come up with several.”
Arnie unfolds his crossed arms, pushes his palms back through his hair, both sides, Biden-like, clears his throat, then steps away from my car as if he's realized he was keeping me out of it (my chance now to get out of the chill). Arnie has creases deep as the Clipperton Trench in both his big earlobes. Possibly he feels dark intimations, but wouldn't recognize them.
I inch forward. My neck is already stiffening up after my partial tumble. I've strained something. Arnie's standing back as if he's sold my car to me and is watching me enjoy it for the first time. I'm trying not to be in a rush to get in. Precisely what's happening here between us, I don't really know. A small-scale mystery in itself.
“Did you ever meet Obama, Frank?” Arnie's harsh mouth is raveled by a look of familiar distaste. Why he'd ask this is beyond me.
“Never have, Arnie. No.” My hand's on the door handle, squeezing it. “He's not really my kinda guy.”
“You voted for him, didn't you?”
“Both times. I think he's great.”
“Yeah, yeah. I figured.”
My guess is Arnie did, too, but can't admit it.
Over the berm, from where saw and hammering noises have previously floated, the scratchy radio comes on again, at first too loud, then softer.
You're once, twice, three times a la-a-deeÂ .Â .Â
. Who sings that? Peabo Bryson? Ludacris? “Eees like, okay, Serena Williams if she was a man,” a man's Spanish-spiced voice begins into the cold air over the music. “Se-re-na Williams
a man!” another male voice says back. “Nooo!
” They all crack up. Life's good if you're them.
“You're taller than you used to be, aren't you, Frank?” Arnie's coming toward me now, a smile opening on his strange, half-woman faceâas if he knows he's wasted my time but means to make it right before all is lost, the beach returned to the dominion of the gulls, all trace of us gone.
“I have the personality of a shorter man, Arnie.” I'm trying to get in my car before Arnie gets closer. I fear an embrace. It could damage my neck and render me an invalid.
heads the list of words I've ruled out. Emerson was rightâas he was about everything: an infinite remoteness underlies us all. And what's wrong with
? Remoteness joins us as much as it separates us, but in a way that's truly mysterious, yet completely adequate for the life ongoing.
Arnie (the idiot) does indeed mean to clap his surprisingly long, leather-cased, net-minder arms around me and pull meâlike a puckâinto his bosom. A save. I have nowhere to escape to, but try to duck my head as he engulfs me, awfully.
“Enough,” I say, my mouth muffled against his goddamn mobster coat, which smells like the inside of his Lexus but also like some epicene men's fragrance Arnie no doubt sprays on,
aprÃ¨s le bain
, with his Russian wife keeping stern watch, tapping her toe like Maggie to Jiggs.
rough, Franky,” Arnie mumbles, wanting me not to feel as bad as I feel about whatever he thinks I feel bad about (being hugged). Clearly he's
here for me
(also on the inventory). A harsh shiver caused by the ocean's chill rattles my ribsâthough Arnie may think I've shuddered, possibly even sobbed. Why would I? My house hasn't been ruined. I try to pull away. My back is against the metal door frame so that if I try any harder I'll hurt my neck even more; or worse, fall back in my car with Arnie on top of me, drive the shifter into my C-4 so that the next thing I know the EMS will have me on a board, hauling me back across to Toms River Community, where I've been before and do not ever want to see again. There's nothing I can doâthe familiar dilemma for people my age. So what I doâan act of pure desolationâis hug Arnie back, clap my arms around his leathery shoulders and squeeze, as much to save myself from falling. It may not
be so different from why anybody hugs anybody. Arnie's hugging me way too hard. My eyes feel bulgy. My neck throbs. The empty space of car seat yawns behind. “Everything could be worse, Frank,” Arnie says into my ear, making my head vibrate. He is surely right. Everything could be much worse. Much, much worse than it is.
READ A PIECE IN THE
about how it would feel to be tossed out into airless space. This was a small box on a left-hand inside page of the Tuesday Science section, items that rarely venture into the interesting, personal side of thingsâthe stuff a short story by Philip K. Dick or Ray Bradbury would go deeply into with profound (albeit totally irrelevant) moral consequences. These
stories are really just intended to supply lower-rung Schwab execs and apprentice Ernst & Young wage slaves with oddball topics to make themselves appear well-read to their competitor-colleagues during the first warm-up minutes in the office every morning; then possibly to provide the whole day with a theme. (“Careful now, Gosnold, or I'll toss that whole market analysis right out into airless space and you along with it .Â .Â .” Eyebrows jinked, smirks all around.)
Nothing's all that surprising about being tossed out into
airless space. Most of us wouldn't stay conscious longer than about fifteen seconds, so that other sensate and attitudinal considerations become fairly irrelevant. The
note that the healthiest of us (astronauts, Fijian pearl divers) could actually stay alive and alert for as long as two minutes, unless you hold your breath (I wouldn't), in which case your lungs explodeâalthough, interestingly, not your skin. The data were imprecise about the quality of consciousness that persistsâhow you might be feeling or what you might be thinking in your last tender moments, the length of time I take to brush my teeth or (sometimes, it seems) to take a leak. It's not hard, though, to imagine yourself mooning around in your bubble hat, trying to come to grips, not wanting to squander your last precious pressurized seconds by giving in to pointless panic. Likely you'd take an interest in whatever's availableâthe stars, the planets, the green-and-blue wheel of distant Earth, the curious, near-yet-so-far aspect of the mother ship, white and steely, Old Glory painted on the cowling; the allure of the abyss itself. In other words, you'd try to live your last brief interval in a good way not previously anticipated. Though I can also imagine that those two minutes could seem like a mighty long time to be alive. (A great deal of what I read and see on TV anymore, I have to say, seems dedicated to getting me off the human stage as painlessly and expeditiously as
possibleâmaking the unknown not be such a bother. Even though the fact that things end is often the most interesting thing about themâinasmuch as most things seem not to end nearly fast enough.)
EN DAYS BEFORE
PULLED INTO MY
driveway on Wilson Lane, I saw a woman I didn't know standing on my front stoop. She was facing the door, having possibly just rung the bell and put herself into the poised posture (we've all done it) of someone who has every right to be where she is when a stranger opens the doorâand if not
right, at least enough not to elicit full-blown hostility.
The woman was black and was wearing a bright red Yuletide winter coat, black, shiny boots, and carried a large black boat of a purse, appropriate to her ageâwhich from the back seemed midfifties. She was also wearing a Christmas-y green-knit tam-o'-shanter pulled down like a cloche, something a young woman wouldn't wear.
I immediately assumed she was a parishioner-solicitor collecting guilt donations for the AME Sunrise Tabernacle over on the still-holding-on black trace of Haddam, beyond the Boro cemetery. In later years, these tidy frame homes have been re-colonized by Nicaraguans and Hondurans who do the gardening, roof repair, and much of the breaking-and-entering
chores out in Haddam Township, or else they run “Mexican” restaurants, where their kids study at poorly lit rear tables, boning up for Stanford and Columbia. These residences have recently faced whacker tax hikes their owners either can't or are too wily to afford. So the houses have become available to a new wave of white young-marrieds who work two jobs, are never home, wouldn't think of having children, and pride themselves on living in a “heritage” neighborhood instead of in a dreary townhouse where everything works but isn't “historic.”