You’re angry, driving nowhere. Your knuckles are glossy and pale, but the backs of your hands are as red as your cheeks. You are distracted. The headlights are on full beam, screaming at the road, bouncing off rock faces and the desert on either side. There are no lines marking the centre of the road as it curls up into the mountains. Roadkill, common in this part of the world, enter the arc of the beam and dive underneath the car, dark streaks and shadow flashes. You are not noticing, because you are too angry — angry with me, your son. Hurt. Your jaw is clenched.
The ocean is miles away but you can smell it in the air. You have about three minutes left to live now, listing around a slow curve and across a canyon bridge.
Just over twenty miles away I am sitting on the back porch, a beer in my hand, listening to the ocean below. I am angry at you, too, but it is mixed with other thoughts and feelings, the sense of distance I feel from my mother and sister. I know you are overreacting, but in that uncertain way teenagers know things, unable to detach themselves from their own emotions. I told you that I wanted to spend the summer with them and, by default, my mother’s new husband Stephen Graham — a man who is only ever referred to by his full name. It is a habit that will be continued now, at least for me, until he dies — my loyalty to you and my resentment sealed by your death (which will happen shortly, in less than two minutes).
I hardly move, sitting here, lost in my conflicted, internal world. I am not really aware of the beer in my hand, barely touched, that came out of the cooler ice-cold and is now warm like old coffee. I am focused inward, and backward, remembering your face when I told you, and then the shaking rage in your hands as you felt around in the glass jar for the car keys. Shouting at your back, your back like a wall, as you walked away down the driveway, not speaking or looking back.
“Stop being a kid,” I shout, in my memory of you walking away. “No wonder Maddie went to live with them!” You stop, do not turn around, and then keep going.
I sit, remembering this, the cool beer in my hand.
I am no doubt sitting in the same position as you swerve to avoid a young woman called Carole Tyler, twist and grind your way through the barrier, and flip out on the dust and rock; die. You will have hit her, but not seriously harmed her. A head wound, a lasting scar on her temple, she will wave down a passing pest control van. She is doing it now, you are dead, and she is flapping her hands in the air, nearly causing another accident as the van’s headlights strike her bright, angelic frame.
I hear of your death about three hours later. A policewoman calls at the house. She has not seen the car, touched your body, checked your pulse, closed your eyes, or interviewed the girl; she is just in the right place to reach me so her police radio calls her in, explains the barest facts, and here she is. She looks tired, and a little annoyed, as if she had better things to be doing. She asks me if I need her to stay, but in such a way as to make it clear she has no idea what she could be useful for — that she understands, also, that it is probably best for me to be alone at a time like this. A phone call with a recorded message breaking the news would have been better than this woman. I thank her — thank her — and close the door after she has turned away.
Over the next months I am accepted into MIT. I keep my secret passions quiet, becoming one of those boys whose eyes slide discreetly away from contact, whose responses to personal questions are returned questions, oblique references to non-specific truths, or outright lies. My skin remains pale in the summer months; computer terminals and light bulbs give off the wrong kind of glow to darken the skin. When I get cramps in my hand from using the keyboard I start using a pen, convinced they will balance each other out.
I do make friends. Later I will even be married, but most of my time is spent in study. One of my friends, Paul, drops around every Tuesday and Thursday night, after he goes to soccer practice, and we drink one or two beers together. I am like a collectible to him; a subject of intense interest. Unlike me he is gregarious and direct, although for his own, carnal reasons, he is no more honest. He picks out fascinating people and talks about them in a fascinated way, trying to project himself into their minds to work them out, or just enjoying their incomprehensibility. I am one such project. Because I am quiet he thinks of me as shy, and believes it is his responsibility to urge me out of my rooms.
“It’s not good for you to sit here all the time,” he says. “When was the last time you even saw a girl? You’re at college, man; that’s what college is for — not study.” He laughs at his own joke.
When I only smile he asks me: “What are you hiding from?”
“Nothing,” I say. “The opposite.”
By our third year we see each other very little. I have become less fascinating. I did tell him what I was doing at some point and he told me I was insane, although he was young enough and curious enough not to be totally sure.
You have been dead for four years when I receive my doctorate. My mother, my sister, and Stephen Graham are there, in spite of my having asked my mother not to bring him. Because she ignored this I do not meet with them for dinner afterwards, but drink with a couple of friends from my faculty, Willis and some other boy I don’t remember, before heading back to my rooms. I have a teaching position at MIT now, which I resent but which practicalities demand. During the period of my doctoral thesis I realised that I would have to re-learn social interaction. I was surprised at how easy it was, like exercising old muscles, picking up a musical instrument that I had not played for years but which once I had been more than proficient at. To be published, to gain employment and funding will all require this skill, so I learn it.
On the eve of receiving my doctorate I am sitting in my rooms, listening to the gaudy shouts of my fellow graduates in the courtyard below, incapable of tears or exultation. Books and papers are strewn around, covering the unmade bed; charts and equations on the walls, the curtains closed but the window open, a yearning that surpasses any science, any linguistic functions, any physical expression.
I am remembering you on my sixteenth birthday. We were in Boston to visit your mother, who refused to move west.
“The West is for cowboys and malcontents,” she had said, more than once. She is dead now, but then we were visiting her and you took me to see the Red Sox play. By some blessing it was against the Yankees, and by some further miracle the Sox won the game. We danced through the streets, up to Faneiul Hall and the Irish Bars, screaming “Yankees suck!” at every subdued figure in a blue baseball cap, and then just at anyone who looked receptive. You had your arm around my shoulders, and you bought me a beer, saying “get that down you” as you handed it to me. You kept introducing me as “my son,” proud of me, to be with me. After I replay that night in Boston, I replay the night of your death, your expression, your back, the car pulling out of the drive. Before nine o’clock on the evening of my doctoral graduation, I am back at work.
Two years later I meet my future wife. She is the sub-editor of a science journal that wants to publish some of my work, and a hopeless romantic. She is plump and friendly, and laughs at my attempts to avoid personal questions, which I now only avoid because I have nothing personal to recount; or only one thing. She has an endearing habit of humming slight, happy tunes in the morning, and she finds my lack of knowledge about world events or popular culture equally endearing, or at least claims so. For a few months I allow myself our relationship, although it takes willpower at first to stay away from my studies. This changes. She has a look in her eyes, when we make love, as if she has found something wonderful; I expect I have the same look in my eyes. Sometimes, when we are together, she kisses me quickly as if she could not help herself and just needs to get it out of the way. I smile all of the time, and my office begins to feel like a black well, full of shadow, that I must stay away from.
We are married. I take Isabelle Mary Collins to be my lawful wife. Our honeymoon is in Mexico. Men in sombreros, with skulls painted on their faces, serenade us at our table. There are graveyards full of white stones, white wooden crosses, and the desert stretches out forever, full of white bones. A desperation creeps into the way I hold her, but she believes it to be only the natural expression of love. When we return to Boston I begin my work again.
We buy a house, a little way out from the college but with a garage that I can use when I am ready to start experimenting. She does not understand why I don’t want children, why I avoid the conversation as if it fills me with dread.
“Who is Carole Tyler?” she asks one day, maybe two years after we have been married. I have written the name down absently, thinking of something else, on the telephone note pad.
“She’s the woman my father hit when he died,” I say. Then I ask: “Do you have to keep humming all the time?”
We are divorced two years later, a few months before I turn thirty. I keep the house, and without children she takes a chunk of dollars but nothing that prevents my progress. It is a little over a decade since you died.
By the time I am thirty-five I am ready to start experimenting, but the initial results are inconclusive at best. Isabelle has stopped writing to me. Willis drops around every now and again and I do my best to entertain, but we both know he is only there because he has few friends as well and, unlike me, he minds. My work at the college is starting to suffer, with the time and energy that I am having to dedicate to the experiments, but by now I have no choice. The questions I ask of my peers have started to get them asking questions of each other, as if I was Frankenstein or some weird spiritualist. The signs of professional suicide are there, but I could be close.
Progress is as it has always been, two steps forward and several back. The mice stay dead, or vanish and do not return.
Three years later I am replaced at the university, but I have expected this and some money is squirreled away. I can continue, if I live frugally and no unexpected costs arise, for another two or three years. In the mirror the physical signs of my lifestyle are starting to show, or maybe it is just the passing of the years. I grow a beard that I occasionally trim back. My eyes are red and unfocused, but I put off buying glasses until I need them to work.
There are one or two sympathetic ears in the community, and it is when I am visiting one of my fellow cranks in New York that I run into Paul again. I try to avoid him but, unexpectedly, he recognises me and takes me by the arm as I am heading into a store to hide. I was not paying attention to the store but I notice him look up, and then into the windows, where a number of female mannequins are modeling dresses and lingerie.
“It is you, isn’t it?” he asks.
I think about saying no.
He buys me a coffee, not a meal which would tie him down. I have become a subject of fascination to him again, albeit briefly, while he waits for his train.
“I heard about the post going,” he says, referring to my job at MIT.
“I needed more time to continue the work, anyway,” I say.
“You can’t mean.…” He looks shocked, almost horrified. “You’re still working on that?”
“Of course,” I say.
He is speechless, shakes his head, takes my arm in his hand and looks me in the eye, wanting badly to say something, but then a look of resigned disgust comes across his face, and he releases me. I am relieved.
I have to start a part time job to pay for the basics. I work in a bookstore, but it is actually a boon. The work is easy and gives me a reason to leave the house, to shave, to interact. Most of the other employees avoid spending too much time with me, so I spend a lot of time in the back room, pricing, and stacking shelves. When someone I know comes into the store, at least on the two occasions that has happened, it is easy to slip away and remain concealed.
Each year I commemorate your death with a beer and a Red Sox game in one of the bars near my house wearing, for the sake of memory, the battered red cap you gave me. I haven’t spoken to my mother or my sister since … since I don’t remember, but I hear that Maddie is married. I’m happy for her. She calls me sometimes, concerned, and I know it causes her pain to think of my life, but sacrifice is necessary. I wonder, if I explained, whether she would understand. She has never abandoned me, though, in spite of the pain, and that is something that binds us together even if she does not know it. I did not go to Stephen Graham’s funeral.
Just short of my forty-eighth birthday I make the breakthrough. A live mouse, blinking and confused, sitting on the metal plate. Three minutes on the watch. I have three minutes, but which three?
The next steps are time consuming but fairly mundane from an intellectual point of view. If only I had thought to do them earlier it would have been much easier. I calculate probable speed, probable route, nothing more than guesses, growing helpless with despair. Only three minutes. At the same time I am building a bigger unit, buying the components as I have money. So close now I am limiting myself to one meal a day, and am neglecting all bills bar the electricity. There is a faucet in the yard of the abandoned house on Wicketts Hill that still works, so I fill up empty coke bottles there.
A breakthrough. For reasons that are inexplicable, but have a feel of fate about them, the video footage from the speed camera on the bridge across the canyon is still intact, and it allows me to pinpoint the required time. I steal a safety vest, bright yellow with a broad reflective strip across it, from a construction site. I save up to buy some safety flares from a sailing store in the North End. I am forty-nine years old, plus three months and twenty-two days, when I step into the machine, my heart thudding and my palms sweating.
You are approaching the canyon bridge now, travelling at approximately forty-seven miles per hour. I look around me, looking for Carole Tyler, to pull her away from the road, but she is nowhere to be seen. The steel boundary, unbroken, and the curve it borders are obvious so I rush forward along the tarmac to reach them, get ahead of them, to warn you. I crack the flares and cast them on the road, just in front of the curve, but the timing is wrong and you are travelling too fast, booming like the sound barrier, white light a star, heavy like the void, my legs crushed by the hood and fender, swept into the air, over the barrier. Your car screeches to a halt. I hardly feel it when I hit the desert and bounce, landing on my side.
You open your car door and rush out. Carole Tyler gets out of the passenger side, crying, with her hands up around her mouth “Ohmygodohmygodohmy …” Now there’s a twist, I think to myself. But it is irrelevant. You are rushing towards me, arms outstretched, calling over your shoulder, “Help me, for Christ’s sake, we need to get him to a hospital.”
You are beautiful. We are about the same age, you and I, but it has to be said you look better for it than I do. There is no surprise or sense of unfamiliarity; you have been with me, exactly like this, throughout my whole life. I smile, my face remembering forgotten shapes; I must look crazy.
“What the hell are you doing out here, fella?” you are asking me, looking into my eyes, afraid to touch me. “You’re in a bad way.”
I think I am going to die. This is fine. I have only seconds before I am taken back. I try to reach out but I can’t.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
You run your hand through your hair, exasperated and unsure what to do next. Carole Tyler is moving hesitantly towards us.
“No problem, buddy,” you say softly, with a sardonic smile.
Now I am lying on a metal plate in my garage. I can’t move my head or stand up and I can see the legs of a workbench; the slats of the garage door beyond. A mouse is scuttling under it, escaping.
I close my eyes, and allow myself to imagine the new life that I have given to you, to a young man like myself who will now never grow into the me that is lying, dying, on the garage floor. It takes no effort of will, as I have imagined it so many times before:
I am sitting on the back porch, a little angry and mostly regretful, finishing the beer in my hand. The waves are crashing on the cliff face below, there is a breeze on my arms and legs, on my young face, and there is the sweet smell of pollen in the air, strong enough to break through the ocean salt. I stretch, yawn, and stand up, and I hear your keys in the front door.