The bus doors opened and the kids tumbled out. Jesus, they were terrifying. Sunburned, long-legged, mosquito-bitten, and hood-eyed, all of them in camp T-shirts with the signatures of friends and bunkmates, and the older girls with the signatures on their T-shirts bumping over the lines of their bra-straps. The wind came off the Hudson.
Play it cool, Jennifer Friedlander told herself. They were at the tip of Riverside Park, across from Grant’s Tomb, the precipice behind them going right down the to the highway. Other mothers gabbed about vacations in Quogue, admissions to Nightingale-Bamford, and elections to co-op boards. Two dads raised video cameras. Fanny packs unzipped, shirts tucked over thickening guts, had they spent a whole decade pointing lenses? They’d filmed the busses leaving and they’d filmed visiting day—that Potemkin vision of camp, a day with no bodies hanging from the trees by their underwear, a night with no one copping a feel by the campfire—no doubt they had filmed the birthdays, too, and graduation from kindergarten and elementary schools, but they had long since been deposed as directors or choreographers of the show. Now, like paparazzi at the stage door, they gawked at entrances and exits while the real drama—the trauma and the lust, the boy meets girl, the force-feedings of slug-and-potato salad—passed by off screen. And no one filmed them, the dads at the short end of the viewfinder getting grayer and stouter each time they raised their cameras high.
Jennifer’s husband Eliot pocketed his phone in the holster of his belt. Their daughter Dorothea was in the back seat of their Volvo, texting, packed away in her dark hair, earbuds, and adolescent scorn. Jennifer kept her eyes on the bus. Out came a tall laughing boy whose Beatles haircut had summertime streaks of blond. Could that be her Alistair? It had happened before at day camp and school picnics. She had seen a gangling, good-looking kid with a Frisbee and realized that it was her boy all grown up, and as she lifted herself from the passenger side of the car she held her chin high. But no. He was last. He was dead last.
From the pile of luggage arranged by sex, age, and cabin, Eliot grabbed the trunk and duffel labeled FRIEDLANDER-BROOKSBAUM. He was tall, forty-eight, sandy-haired, tenured in English at Stony Brook, with a bicycle rider’s legs and Valentino glasses. As he lifted up the luggage he caught the whiff. Old eggs? Rotten broccoli? He hustled past the other parents. He pulled the nylon straps on the roof rack tight. He prayed whatever it was would air out in the drive.
And there he was, her son Alistair, stumbling down the big stairs and raising a pale forearm to block the light, his arm too skinny to provide any shade, and his sneakers untied, laces flapping. There were no signatures on his T-shirt. He looked so small, his eight-week-old mop top shagging into his strange Mongolian eyes, and Jennifer could not help it—she ran through the video frames. She grabbed him. She buried her face in his hair and as she did so she too caught the whiff.
Had she stepped in something? She backed off. Alistair toddled on the pavement. His chin moved, a small z-shaped motion, which could have meant No, I don’t want to talk about it or Please, mom, don’t. But surely it wasn’t him. That smell couldn’t be Alistair.
“Oh my God,” said Dorothea, as her brother climbed in beside her. “What did they, like, put a skunk in your wedgie?”
“None of that,” said Jennifer, snapping her seatbelt. It wasn’t so bad for a moment, as she slipped into the car’s corn chip and vinyl smell. “How was camp, Alistairium?”
He stared through his reflection toward the campers at the curb, hugging and crying and exchanging phone numbers. His bangs shagged down toward his enormous eyelashes.
Eliot at the steering wheel sniffed his palms and fingers. Jennifer checked the soles of her espadrilles. She thought she should run out and ask someone, a counselor, the assistant director, but she didn’t want to make a scene or draw too much attention—and they were off. Eliot lowered all the windows. The cross-breeze offered relief until the first red light on Broadway and then the smell came up from the rear of the car.
“I’m gonna need a barf bag—”
“—a gas mask—”
“—a butt-load of potpourri.”
The subway rattled high above. Jennifer dug her fingernails into her husband’s forearm.
“Maybe we stop home,” he said. “Maybe a shower and the laundry before the big drive.”
“Alistair?” Jennifer turned to face him. “How do you feel about stopping home? How do you feel about a shower?”
He didn’t answer, and with his giant head on his little body stared wide-eyed at the gas stations, construction sites, and warehouses of 125th Street.
“It’s not in your hair, is it?” said Dorothea.
Alistair would not face his mother. He was shuttered in there. He was beautiful. He was fragile. He was in pain.
“I don’t smell a thing,” said Jennifer.
Eliot said, “Really?” They turned toward the on-ramp.
“No.” She looked down at the marks her fingernails had left in his arm. “And you don’t either.”
They hit the highway. Papers flew. In the back seat, Dorothea’s hair blew everywhere. Eliot glanced over his shoulder and into the maelstrom.
“No stopping at home, kid?”
“Eliot,” Jennifer murmured.
“Don’t pressure him. We’re going straight through,” she said. “Isn’t that right, Alistairium?”
181st Street, their exit, passed. Alistair raised his window at the tollgate. The car powered through the Bronx, all the windows down save his.
“Please,” said Jennifer. “Slower.”
Eliot pressed his lips together. He passed a Cadillac on the right, and then wove back into the left lane.
Traffic thickened as they got on the Merritt Parkway and by Yalesville they began to slow. As their speed dropped, the breeze died, the car got hotter, and the smell more intense. From the top of a rise, they saw stalled cars all the way down the hill, and all the way up the next, a cascade of brake lights rolling toward them. With the wind silenced, the stereo roared. Revolution rock, it is the brand new rock.
“Eliot,” said Jennifer. “Could we turn that down please?”
He blinked behind his glasses. Last year he had them all singing together, the four Friedlander-Brooksbaums in chorus: You can cut us, you can bruise us, but you’ll have to answer to, oh, oh, the guns of Brixton.
He shut it off. “Al.” Eliot turned to face his son. “Let’s roll down that window, shall we?”
“Maybe the air conditioner?” Jennifer suggested.
“Al? You don’t put that window down, I’m going to put it down for you.”
“Please don’t bully him, Eliot.”
Eliot pressed a button on his door, and Alistair’s glass shield fell, and there was the grass on the side of the highway with each blade discreet and visible, and the leaves of every pin oak, and through the woods came the splashes of back yard pools. To the right and in front of them sat a battered white van, its rear window curtained in gingham, its Alabama license plate hanging by a wire. FREEDOM DOESN’T FREE, one bumper sticker read. SEXUALIZE WHIRLED PEE. Heat rose in waves off the blacktop.
“Who wants to play twenty questions?” Jennifer asked. “Botticelli? Ghost?”
Dorothea stuck her head out her window and like a dog lapped exhaust. The van on their right had its windows down. The driver sucked on a small wooden pipe.
“How about Mozart? You know what I could use now? I could really use a string quartet.” She looked at their husband as the car crawled toward the shadowless trough at the bottom of the hill. He was breathing through his mouth, his hair damp at the neck. She fumbled with the iPod, but instead of conjuring harmonic architectures, the Mozart assailed her in jagged bursts. She flicked the tracks forward. “I like the one with the clarinet.”
Eliot put the fan on high, and it came out hot from the vents, the white rush obliterating the strings.
“Oh I always feel it’s such a waste,” she said. “Don’t you? With the windows down and the air conditioning—”
He stabbed at the controls, killing the fan but leaving the Mozart.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You can turn that back on if you like.”
“You said you hated it.”
“I said it was a waste. But I don’t want to—”
She reached for the knob, but he pushed her hand away. The violinist bowed her spinal column. The clarinet poked her in the eye. The stoner in the van had a black bush for a head, a brow ridge and a nose peeking out. His girlfriend’s ringed toes stuck out her window. Jennifer stretched her neck and looked at the car’s ceiling.
“Maybe you were right,” she said, as they crested a hill. Beyond them the line of cars extended to the horizon. “I’m sure that somewhere in Connecticut we can find a shower.”
“A shower?” said Eliot. “Why? Do you detect an odor?”
“Eliot. I’m sorry—”
“No, honey. You said there was nothing to smell. You said I didn’t smell a thing. So I don’t now.” He made a tomahawk motion with his hand. “No stopping. Straight on through.”
Dorothea looked toward the green grass of the divider and thought she might make a break for it.
“A shower?” Eliot continued. “Why would you want him to take a shower? You don’t want to take a shower, do you, Al?”
“Oh, please don’t do this, Eliot.”
The muscles on his jaw bulged. “I’m not doing a thing,” he said. They came to a short stop. The seatbelt cut into her belly. Between her legs Jennifer had a picnic in a big paper bag: two overstuffed sandwiches, the broccoli rabe and mozzarella to split between Dorothea and herself, the fried chicken cutlet for Eliot and Alistair, and she had a bottle of seltzer and a bottle of water, and four organic bananas, slightly bruised, and a bar of chocolate, 70% cacao.
“I’m not listening to my music. I’ve got the air conditioner off. And luckily, there’s no smell in the car. And that’s a good thing. Because the lack of smell has provoked my appetite. Give me a sandwich, please.”
“Dad,” said Dorothea.
“What? You want one too?”
They were all wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts, and their skin stuck to their seats with a sweaty, gummy seal. Jennifer pulled out Eliot’s hero, and as she unwrapped it she turned away—the wilted lettuce, the mayonnaise pink with tomato seeds, the spongy bread, and the dead beaten flesh trapped in ecru breading. Eliot grabbed his half from her. Dressing dripped from his mouth. A piece of onion went flying. He chewed. He swallowed. He went for another bite.
“Stop it!” Dorothea cried. “Why won’t you stop it?”
“Me?” Both parents asked.
Then Eliot rolled the sandwich back into its paper and handed it to Jennifer, who very quietly turned on the air-conditioner and the fan. The road veered right, and they saw it: the lights and the accident, the shattered glass, and the family shuddering on the grass embankment and the trooper with his wide-brimmed hat.
Traffic narrowed to one lane. DHARMA PHARMA. The van pulled in front of them. Soon the cars flew free. In the long tunnel between Milford and Meriden, the air conditioner chilled the odor, thickened it. Jennifer could see it on her husband, in his sweaty sheen. It was on her, too, in her pores and follicles. It was on her tongue. She watched him mouth-breathing. The lights of the tunnel flashed by. It was on their teeth and gums and palates.
Out on the open road, the wind filled her ears and nostrils and dried her lips. The iPod was on shuffle, but she couldn’t tell any more if it was Talking Heads or Pablo Casals. They passed Middletown, and the sign for Wesleyan, where in 1996 Jennifer, just out of graduate school, had delivered a talk. That was the year she had turned down a position in Iowa and learned that she was pregnant, and Eliot had landed the Stony Brook gig. She had moved in with him to his grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights. As the sun sank, she lowered her visor and in the vanity mirror saw Alistair with his eyes closed. The wind pushed back his hair, and she felt a pang not too far from the spot that had ached when at twelve years old she had gazed at magazine pictures of Ralph Macchio.
She shut her eyes. The wind pressed against her eyelids, shellacking them with the smell, and Jennifer dreamed of the Wesleyan quad in wintertime, young Jennifer mooning over a dissertation chapter that might appear in Genders and imagining herself sitting cross-legged on a desk chair in a seminar room and introducing a class of sophomores to the concept of hegemony. She’d had no idea then of zygote Dorothea splitting in the womb. That was the joke she liked to tell, that she wasn’t a Victorianist anymore but an object lesson from a Victorian novel, and no one hated that joke more than Dorothea, whose name felt like a footnote to her mom’s dissertation. The stink blew into her, blew through their luggage, and baked in the camp trunk and duffel on the roof. When they got to Vermont, there would be so much laundry. She’d take it out of the house. She’d do it all in town.
The evening lights were on in Hartford. They passed the bulb and minarets of the old Colt factory. From 91 to 89 traffic got sparse and their headlights wiped the stars from the sky. They were off the highway now, up and down dirt roads, but she couldn’t smell pine or mown grass or cow manure.
The car stopped. Eliot killed the headlights. As it disappeared in front of her, Jennifer realized that they had reached the Brooksbaum family summerhouse. Out of the car, she staggered in the darkness. She had forgotten how steeply the lawn sloped. Dorothea grunted and slammed the car door. Her husband wrangled with the bike rack.
“Alistair?” Had they forgotten him in the car? “Alistairium?”
But he was standing right beside her in the darkness.
“Don’t call me that, Mom.”
“What he wants,” Jennifer said, “is independence.”
“I don’t give a shit what he wants.”
They stood in the porch, the light on in the kitchen. Through the window they could see Alistair reading the back of a Rice Krispies box and licking the edge of a spoon. Above him a moth cast crazy shadows across the room. Dorothea was upstairs, showering.
“I know you’re mad at me, Eliot. But don’t take it out on Alistair.”
“I’m not angry, Jennifer. That’s not the point. No, let me finish. You can sympathize with him all you like, you can reason with him to your heart’s content, but if you’re asking me, and I don’t mean to be blunt about it, the weakness of your parenting is the interrogative—”
“Oh, now it’s my—”
“Please.” He held up a hand. “Don’t take it personally. It’s generational, maybe, this tendency to ask rather than order—‘Would you like to take a shower?’ This isn’t complicated stuff. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. The kid smells, ergo the kid ought to bathe. And if he doesn’t respond to your gentle entreaties, you know what? I’m going to grab him by the scruff of the neck and I’m gonna chuck him in the douche. I’ll take a washcloth and I’ll fucking ream out his armpits and his balls—”
“Oh, that’s it,” she whispered. “That is it. He’s not showering. Not at your ordering, not at my suggestion, not another word about it, not until he gets up on his hind legs and does it on his own.”
But in the night, she rebuked herself.
She and her husband had showered. She had pulled fresh sheets from the closet and spread them across Eliot’s parents’ old bed. There were a hundred trillion synapses in her brain, a hundred thousand miles of biological wiring, but all of it buzzed with Alistair. Eliot snored. It was in the pillowcase. It was in her fingers. It was coming from his hair and from the bedposts, too—rising up through the mothballs in the old wool blanket, the must of the quilt, the pine in the night air, and the mildew from the baseboards. Staring up in the country darkness she imagined her boy downstairs asleep. His white face, the mouth open, the lips, the trickle of drool. She imagined the stink coming off of him in tendrils, penetrating the wide planks of the floorboards, the plaster in the walls, the century-old joists and beams of the house, crawling through the daisy wallpaper in the parlor. What had it been like at camp? She had heard what boys could do, she’d read up on the Internet, the kids of one cabin crowding around the cot of their victim to pee. They had to wash him. As parents, it was their duty to keep him decent, to keep him clean. She tiptoed from bed and made it downstairs by feel. Mice rustled in the pantry. Passing headlights swept the counters’ gloom, then everything went black.
She stretched her arms into the mudroom. She closed and opened her eyes. She tripped over shoes. Her bare foot struck wood—the leg of the old sofa. She touched the old damp slipcover, but it was too high—this wasn’t the arm but the back of the couch. She turned counterclockwise. She swung her hands. The walls retreated. She lunged. Was that a shelf or a mantel? Something hit her pinky, fell, and shattered.
But they were deep in adolescent sleep. Beating the wall for a light switch, she found a doorknob instead. Turning it, she opened the door into blackness, and out came a texture like goaty cheese. She crossed the threshold. Her blind eyes watered. It clotted her throat.
The cold metal bed frame touched her shin. She bent to feel the army blanket, and the afghan, and the aura of his body heat. She could lick it off him, like a mare licking placenta off a newborn foal.
“Mom?” He jumped from sleep. “Mom? What the fuck are you doing here?”
Eliot awoke. His wife was leaving. The roof of the Volvo, laden with the camp trunk and duffel, edged down the gravel driveway. He sniffed his armpit. Some coffee was left in the Pyrex pot. He turned the flame beneath it to high. Dorothea was already in the backyard, lying on a towel in the grass, her hair damp with some kind of treatment. Wires ran down from her ears, her thumbs flew across a tiny keyboard. He rinsed a mug and dried it, smelled it, checked again for turds, and then mixed the coffee with some lumpy cream his brother had left in the fridge. He ate a banana baked and blackened from the ride.
He should do it now. Grab the kid. Use a loofa or a scrub brush. Get it out of him. He stepped out to the lawn.
His Motobecane bicycle lay in two pieces on the porch by a weather-worn rocking chair. He flipped the bicycle onto its seat and spun the clamp to reattach the front wheel, then spun the wheel against his thumb, testing its spin for true. He looked toward Alistair’s window. He shot his kickstand. Barefoot, he walked the ragged lawn. He thought of camp. Who could have slept or eaten or even swum with a boy who smelled like that? He shut his eyes. He headed back inside. He passed the old couch in the mudroom on which as a boy he had read Philip Roth and Roger Zelazny. He knocked. He pushed the door open.
The kid was sitting on the floor with his back to his father. He had slept in Eliot’s old Gang of Four T-shirt, and the shirt fell like a dress around his small, curved back.
Alistair picked up a piece of plastic and dropped it—a black die with four white spots on its top. He had a graph paper notebook and a pen. On the floor were four riders, each rider with a horse—a black rider on a black horse, a blue rider on a blue horse, a red rider on a red horse, and a white rider on a white horse, the horses decorations from an ancient birthday cake. Each horse had a toothpick extending form its hooves, and without the cake beneath them, the horses could not stand.
Alistair moved the red horse four narrow floorboards toward the wall. He made notes on the graph paper. He picked up his die and rolled a five, then moved the black horse.
“Al?” Eliot said. “Did you get breakfast?”
The boy marked his notebook.
“Because I’m going for a ride.”
“Do you sell Febreeze?”
“Here, we like to say hi first.”
“I’ll take two bottles, please.”
Jennifer had parked diagonally across the white stripes that extended out from the curb. She had loosed the nylon roof rack straps that Eliot had fixed so tightly. The bag had fallen into her arms like a corpse. She left the trunk up there, but hugged the duffel to her chest and lugged it into the laundromat, where a small child screamed.
“Harlene,” said the mother. “Now don’t point. Don’t plug your nose. Just help me get this and—good gravy!—we can fold when we get home.”
Jennifer claimed the double loaders. She unzipped the duffel, wincing. There were his clothes, each sock marked in her hand with a laundry marker, each pair of briefs with an iron-on ALISTAIR FRIEDLANDER-BROOKSBAUM tag. His cargo shorts. His Mariano Rivera T-shirt. She shoved them down the hole. She dumped detergent into the foamy slot, then put in extra bleach. She wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her blouse. It was climbing into her clothes. It was in her sweat.
Jennifer walked through Philipsburg with her chin high and legs trembling. In Ben Franklin, she bought a three-pack of size-seven panties, a C-cup bra, a cartoon moose shirt, and a pair of sweatpants with GREEN MOUNTAINS printed on the butt. In a diner bathroom she washed her face and neck with pink liquid soap and folded brown paper towels. With a bottle of Febreeze in each hand, she marched to the Volvo and through its windows opened fire. She peeked in the washer door. She took a sniff. She put in another set of quarters and fled to the car. Then she left town.
As she rounded a curve up a dirt road, gravel flew from under her tires. The camp trunk bounced up top. Past a cow pasture, she found the bridge and the ravine. She would rescue her child. His trunk was made of black pasteboard with brass-finished corners and hinges and a lock with an old-fashioned keyhole. She ripped off the nametag with the Washington Heights address. At first bounce, its contents began to spew. His sleeping bag and his hiking pack, his wool blankets, his flashlight, his baseball books. The trunk went end over end, bouncing on scrub grass and boulder, splitting through the brambles and broken branches and beer bottles, until it came to rest in the stream bed below, just beside a hiking boot on a rock smooth and blue as a dolphin’s back. Fuck Eliot. It didn’t take a Ph.D. She wouldn’t go back to Hostos in the fall. She would teach no more adjunct classes in college composition. She would finish her dissertation this year. Fuck his long commute, Eliot was going to have to do his share with the kids.
Down the serpentine road she wove, applying her brakes and sniffing as she went, now her hands, now her hair, now the dashboard. There was traffic by an antique Esso sign, a gas station recently converted into a croissants-and-panini shop. The pick-up in front of her braked and signaled left. Jennifer stared at the carloads of oncoming traffic, the happy families with their canoes and bicycles and paper sacks of corn. By the rusted bubble-headed gas pumps, she saw the bicyclist, helmet off and straddling his Motobecane. He was talking to two women, one small and dark and smiling with a sideways haircut, the other big and blond and languorous.
Rona Foncoon was the post-colonialist at Wesleyan, thin-waisted and dry-cleaned and with the same trademark haircut she had had when she had sat on the committee that had passed over Jennifer in favor of Nadine Fine, who had gone to Yale with Jennifer, and who now stood by Rona’s side. Nadine still had all the curves she’d had in grad school. Her skin was if anything fairer, her hair was more silken, and it was piled on her head in a sloppy knot.
The pick-up made its turn. Eliot took one hand off his bicycle. They hadn’t seen her yet. And no way was Jennifer talking to Rona and Nadine, not in a moose T-shirt and with letters on her butt. Hell for leather, she sped back toward town. Meanwhile:
“Did you eat breakfast?” Dorothea asked.
The boy stood there in the doorway, neither entering nor leaving the kitchen. He turned down his Mongolian eyes.
She said, “What?”
He spoke again, head down, barely audible.
“Some kids said it was shit.” Alistair fingered the hem of his father’s old shirt. “Others said it was more like throw-up.”
“One kid, Brooke Stevenson, he said it was more like boogers. But I don’t think anyone knows what boogers smell like, really, because they’re in your nose all the time. You’re always smelling boogers.”
“You could take a shower.”
“One counselor, Kent, he said it was probably having to do with puberty. The other, Todd, said it was maybe like cancer.”
“What, while the other counselors fixed bug juice and knit lanyards, he was making his oncology rounds?”
She got him a washcloth and dandruff shampoo. She dug into the cabinet behind the expired insect repellent and crusty-topped Calamine and unwrapped a three-pack of Irish Spring.
“Don’t take your underpants off until I get out of here, okay? I don’t want to see your stinky pubes.”
She brought down her Tom’s of Maine roll-on, then found some Right Guard that had once belonged to an uncle. “Use both, one on top of the other.” She got cornstarch (his dead grandpa’s, still smelling like babies) for his crotch and feet. Then she fetched her own Kiehl’s Olive Fruit Moisturizing Conditioner and handed it to him through the shower curtain, with a comb and careful instructions. With her grandmother’s old yellow kitchen gloves, Dorothea grabbed the horrible T-shirt he had slept in and also the underwear off the bathroom floor. She stripped the sheets and pillowcase and forced it all into a cinch sack, and while the shower ran she marched the bag to the driveway and the garbage cans in their raccoon-proof cage. She hauled his mattress out into the lawn for airing. Then she filled a bucket with hot water and found an empty bottle of Top Job and a full one of bleach, and she swabbed the boards of her brother’s room.
When Jennifer came home, Dorothea was in the shower, and Alistair, smelling like a drugstore sample case, sat in the living room in his sister’s red kimono, reading a comic book about a Japanese girl who had a magic lasso that came from her vagina and helped her defeat the Yakuza who threatened her parents’ udon shop. Eliot returned from his bike ride, and Jennifer was in the back yard, grilling hot dogs.
The picnic table sat on a rise behind the house, the small weedy vegetable garden to the right and the clothesline to the left empty but for one cousin’s forlorn bathing suit. Out of a shower in which she had scrubbed her skin raw, Jennifer had dressed in a swimsuit (a two-piece with a top that covered her navel and a bottom that flared into a skirt) and over that an old soft Oxford button-down discarded by her husband. Eliot wore his boxy swim trunks and a T-shirt that had once said TOLEDO MUDHENS.
“How was your bike ride?” Jennifer asked. She had blown her Wesleyan interview not in the lecture but in the Q and A, when Rona Foncoon had badgered her about Gayatri Spivak.
Rona had also wondered why Jennifer insisted upon the French word “autre” when the English “other” seemed so much more apropos. The breeze shifted. The smoke blew across the table. Jennifer’s contacts were back in, her face sunscreened and moisturized, her wild curls in a clip. With a finger Alistair wiped the excess mustard off his hot dog. Then the paper plates went into the trash, and the salad bowl in the sink, and the family into the Volvo, Jennifer in the passenger’s seat.
“Nothing interesting on your bike ride?”
“Would you look at those hills?”
The mountains turned, and the pastures rose, and the sandy hair fluttered on his forehead. When they got to the pond, Dorothea laid out a towel and began to anoint herself with tanning oil. Boys with Budweisers sat up on their haunches to look at her. Eliot perched on a rail of the bridge and dived. Alistair floated on his back and frog-kicked. His arms went chicken-airplane-soldier. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t go back to her dissertation. She had no advisor. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was dead. And she could not remember a thing about Elizabeth Gaskell, let alone French post-structuralist theory—Emmanuel Levinas, those endless, impossible rhetorical questions, and those words no one used like hapax and kerygmatic. And even if she finished, so what? There were no jobs, no market for a middle-aged, unpublished scholar, interested not in Writing Theory or New Media, but in English novels of the nineteenth century. She’d be more likely to find fulfillment in chiropracting or massage therapy. Besides, the kids were growing up. Alistair was starting seventh grade— she wouldn’t have to pack lunches in the morning. And Dorothea would be looking for colleges soon. She would take a swim. And if she got a cramp and drowned, well, maybe then someone would notice her. Fuck Eliot. Fuck Rona. Fuck Nadine Fine and her perfect skin. Water whooshed in her ears.
Alistair drifted out of sun and into shadow. The Kiehl’s Olive Fruit Conditioner rinsed free of his hair. Cornstarch floated off his private places. Little guppies sucked at his toes. The boy made his way over the slippery rocks where the infants in swim diapers played. He let the sun dry his skin and wandered a worn path that edged the water. Black flies buzzed overhead. His bare feet stepped on pine needles and tree roots and sheared-off bracken. The pond scum stiffened on his skin. He began to sweat.
In the car going home, Eliot put on his glasses, then checked his face in the rear view mirror. “You wouldn’t mind,” he said, “if maybe Sunday we had some old friends for dinner?”
Jennifer leaned over and put her lips to his ear. “We have to take him to an endocrinologist.”
She wanted him to be seen by someone at Dartmouth. She wanted to go to Boston. At night, they whispered in the bedroom.
“It’s the last week of August,” said Eliot. “Anyone who is anyone is in Cape Cod—it’s residents and interns, honey. Let’s enjoy our vacation, okay, like normal people? Really do you want Alistair to spend this week—the one week we’re all together—in hospital waiting rooms? In phlebotomists’ chairs? Peeing into paper cups? Look at me, Jennifer. This is not the end of the world. This will disappear as quickly or as slowly as it came, and even if it doesn’t, it’s no cause for hysteria. Have you walked the aisles of Rite Aid? There are whole industries in this country devoted to the fight against body odor. And what a pointless, bourgeois fight—Bertrand Russell, you know, had chronic, stinking halitosis, and he still fucked whomever he pleased.”
“Can we at least skip dinner with Rona and Nadine?”
“I know this isn’t easy for you, but it’s an opportunity, that’s all.” He sighed. “Nadine’s department chair. Rona’s heading the search. It’s a senior position. If they make me an offer it could be your way back into the game. Spousal hire, babe. I’m not promising they’d let you teach Jane Austen, at least not right away, but you’d definitely get better students in your comp classes—”
“Oh, fuck you, Eliot. Fuck you. He’s going to have a horrible time in junior high school.”
Of course, she couldn’t sleep.
With a bleach pen she whitened the grout between the bathroom tiles. With antibiotic wipes she scrubbed down the refrigerator, and she sprayed the furniture with Lysol. It didn’t matter where Eliot taught. Wesleyan, Stony Brook, she didn’t have to spend her life adjunct to his profession. She could write a novel. She could telephone friends. But no fucking way was she hosting this dinner. Dawn came and she brewed coffee. She fried bacon. She mixed pancake batter and melted sweet butter in a pan, but still it lingered everywhere— under her fingernails, in the breadbox, in the cold vents of the old gas heater.
“So meet them in a restaurant.”
“We’ll clean the house. We’ll open the windows. We’ll barbeque.”
“You’re in denial, Eliot. You’re not taking this seriously.”
“I’m not going to hide him away. I’m not going to change my life over this. I am in no way ashamed of my son.”
“Oh, that’s right. That’s me. I’m the one who’s ashamed of Alistair!”
Saturday, she parked by the old Philipsburg Church. She hated the hills and valleys, even the scenic views, but more than that she hated Vermonters, the hicks, the hippies, and the back-to-nature intellectual New York Jews. She smelled her blouse, grabbed her pocketbook, and checked her eyes in the rearview mirror.
The first doughnuts of the morning were being fried, and the coffee tureen was plugged into an old Ford farm truck. The pie lady arranged doilies across a folding card table. There were bunches of yard-grown basil, and pints of hot-house tomatoes, and piles of green-eared corn.
“Oh, I’m not buying that.”
Jennifer wore her sunglasses on top of her corkscrew hair. She bought radishes, chard, golden beets, broccolini, and mushrooms. This was madness. She crossed the black top. She could put ground glass in the gazpacho.
The road ran beside the river, twisting between green hills. Eliot had inflated four truck tire inner tubes. The Friedlander-Brooksbaums parked at a sandy shoulder, and walked a mile north along Route 100, the four of them in single file, rolling their big black tubes. Eliot led the way. Jennifer took up the rear. No one spoke. The sun pressed hot on their shoulders.
Dorothea wore a gold band on her ankle, rubber thongs on her pink-soled feet, and nothing else but her little swimsuit. Drivers whistled. Jennifer scowled. Butterflies and bumblebees moved through the goldenrod. She saw how hairy Alistair’s legs had grown. His shoes were too tight. Mosquitoes buzzed, and everyone swatted. Above the pines in a notch between mountains, a hawk circled. Shower him right before Rona and Nadine came, serve the kids separately, put them in the barn, let them watch what they wanted. A Jeep passed, and the Friedlander-Brooksbaums were left wincing in its wake. Around the bend were the picnic grounds. But they would smell it. Rona and Nadine would know.
A Dodge minivan, a Toyota Sienna, there were families in the clearing, and Alistair dropped his inner tube and it bounced and sounded. Sweat ran down the runnel of his pale neck. He stopped walking. Jennifer was rooting for him now, hoping for him to speak up in his own defense and disabuse Eliot of his absurd exhibitionism.
“Come on, Al.” Eliot gripped the boy’s arm. “We can do this. We’re going to do like we always do.”
“Dad,” said Dorothea.
“Dorothea,” said Jennifer, who didn’t like her daughter’s tone.
Eliot let go of Alistair and wiped his hands on his boxy swim trunks. Alistair looked away, over his mother’s shoulder. The marks of his father’s fingers showed pink on his arm.
In the clearing, a Frisbee flew. A mother hollered. The path to the river cut through the pines and blackberry bushes. Eliot gestured commandingly. The Friedlander-Brooksbaums entered.
A tub of used frying oil. Mayonnaise left in the sun. Or was that the other family’s picnic? The mother had a chicken bone in one hand and she squinted, turning her enormous glasses left and right. A stubby ponytail sat on top of her head, her hair dyed a harsh shade of orange. Her husband rose from the table, and he lifted a giant tub of soupy coleslaw around which flies buzzed.
They had too many children and the children had too much flesh, and it was hard to tell who was pregnant and who was pubescent and who was developing breasts. The pig-tailed girl’s toss sent the Frisbee flying. The disc as it flew lofted through light and shadow. Jennifer saw the dad’s big nostrils, the curve of his lips, the rise of his glasses above his mustache.
A blond boy charged for the Frisbee, his skin shining pink and white. He huffed and ran as it glided, and he ran straight at Alistair, but Alistair wasn’t budging, he stood as if in a dream, and Jennifer stood frozen as the shirtless blond kid smacked right into her son, belly into side, and Jennifer felt all the wind coming out of her.
Time was moving too slowly. She wasn’t moving at all. Alistair’s truck tire inner tube fell and then he fell down too, and the two boys—a tangle of fat and skinny—rolled in one direction and the big black tube rolled in another and the Frisbee rolled in a third. In a vision Jennifer saw the big boy set his knees on Alistair’s chest, and Dorothea joining the fray. Eliot and the father would get to whacking each other. Dorothea would shove the mother’s head into that big tub of slaw.
The fat boy stood and rearranged his hair and smiled, and offered Alistair a hand.
“No blood, no foul,” said the mother.
Eliot picked up the inner tube and gave her a jaunty wave. Dorothea giggled—a kind of adolescent snort. And without getting up from the picnic table, and with her strange breasts bobbing free, the woman with the orange hair nodded at Jennifer. Had she caught the stink? What did she know? Everyone was smiling and the smells were awful everywhere.
When they got to the water, Dorothea laughed, and Alistair was laughing too. Eliot was beaming. Dorothea stepped into the rushing shallows. She slipped. She let out a whoop. Alistair’s giggling got sillier, and his sister splashed him.
Eliot, Alistair, and Dorothea launched their tubes into the current. Her husband, kicking, made the biggest splashes of all. Jennifer had to deal with her purse and sunglasses.
She heard laughter from up the hill, from the family in the clearing. The current carried her children toward the rapids. She could make a run for it now, through the clearing, and to the car. Pedal to the floor, bury the needle. She’d be gone before they even missed her. But there was Alistair’s small white body glowing in the sun, vanishing as it flashed around a curve.
“Careful,” she called out. “Careful of the rocks!”
Gabriel Brownstein won the PEN/Hemingway Award for his book of stories The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt, 3W, and he is author of the novel