THE HOMES OF THE STARS

Last night, I heard it again.  About eleven, I stood at the kitchen counter, slathered peanut butter onto a stale slice of wheat toast, and scanned months-old letters to the editor in an A section pulled at random from the overflow around the recycle bin.  “New Tax Will Halt Teen Smoking.”  “Economy Slipping Under Bush.”  “Leave President To Nation’s Business.”  the little headlines gave the otherwise routine letters such urgency, like telegraphed messages from some war-torn front where issues are being decided, where news is happening.  As I chewed my Skippy-coated bread, I turned one-handed to the movie listings, just to reassure myself that everything I had skipped in the winter wasn’t worth the trouble anyway, and then I heard a slowly approaching car.

We don’t get much traffic on my street, a residential loop in a quiet neighborhood, and so even we single guys who don’t have kids in the yard unconsciously register the sounds of each passing vehicle.  But this was the fifth night in a row, and so I set down my snack and listened.

 

Kevin used to identify each passing car, just for practice.

“Fairlane.”

“Crown Victoria.”

“Super Beetle.”

This was back home, when we were as bored as two seventeen year olds could be.

“Even I can tell a Super Beetle,” I said.  I slugged my orange Crush and lowered the bottle to look with admiration at the bright orange foam.

Kevin frowned, picked up his feet, and rotated on the bench of the picnic table so his back was to the street.

Without thinking, I said, “Mind, you’ll get splinters.”  I heard my mother speaking and winced.

Now Kevin looked straight ahead at the South High outdoor basketball court, where Shirley and her friends, but mostly Shirley (who barely knew us, but whose house was fourth on our daily route) were playing a pick-up game, laughing and sweating and raking their long black hair from their foreheads.  As each car passed behind him, he continued his litany.

“Jeep.”

“Ford pickup.”

“Charger.”

I didn’t know enough to catch him in an error, of course but I have no doubt he was right on the money, every time.  I never learned cars; I learned other things, that year and the next fifteen years, to my surprise and exhilaration and shame, but I never learned cars, and so I am ill-equipped to stand in my kitchen and identify a car driving slowly past at eleven o’clock at night.

Not even when, about five minutes later, it gives me another chance, drives past again in the other direction, as if it had gotten as far as the next cul-de-sac and turned around.

It passes so slowly that I am sure it is about to turn into someone’s driveway, someone’s, mine, but it hasn’t for five nights now.  I couldn’t tell you if I had to what make of car it is.

I could guess though.

Maybe tonight, if, when it passes by, I’ll go to the front door and pull back the dusty curtain that never gets pulled back except for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and see for myself what make of car it is.  See if I recognize it.  But all I did last night, and the four nights before, was stand at my kitchen counter, fingertips black with old news, jaws chunky peanut-buttered shut (for I am a creature of habit), stare unseeing at the piled-up sink, and trace in my head every long gone step on the map, to the homes of the stars.

 

Even when all we had were bicycles, Kevin and I spent most of our time together riding around town.  We rode from convenience store to convenience store, Slim Jims in our pockets and folded comic books stuffed into the waistbands of our jeans.  We never rode side by side or in single file, but in loopy serpentine patterns, roughly parallel that weaved among trees and parked cars and water sprinklers.  We had earnest and serious conversations that lasted for hours and were entirely shouted from bike to bike, never less than ten feet.  Our paths intersected with hair-raising frequency, but we never ran into each other.  At suppertime, we never actually said good-bye, but veered off in different directions, continuing to holler at each other, one more joke that had to told, one more snappy comeback to make, until the other voice faded into the distance, and we realized we were riding alone, and talking to ourselves.  I remember nothing of what we said to each other all those long afternoons, but I remember the rush of wind past my ears, and the shirttail of my red jersey snapping behind me like a hound, and the slab of sidewalk that a big tree root thrust up beneath me the last block before home, so that I could steer around it at the last second and feel terribly skillful, or using it as a launching ramp and stand up on the pedals and hang there, suspended, invincible, until the pavement caught up with my tires again.

Then we were sixteen and got our licenses.  Kevin’s bicycle went into the corner of his room, festooned with clothes that weren’t quite ready to wash yet; mine was hung on nails inside the garage, in a place of honor beside my older sister’s red wagon and my late Great-Grandfather Dominic’s homemade bamboo fishing poles.  Kevin had been studying Consumer Reports and Car & Driver  and prowling dealerships for months and, with his father’s help, he bought a used ‘78 Firebird, bright red exterior, black leather upholstery, cassette stereo, and a host of tire and engine features that Kevin could rattle off like an auctioneer but that I could never quite remember afterward. Being a fan of old gangster movies,  Kevin called it his “getaway car.”  Kevin and his dad got a great deal, because the get away car had a dent in the side and its headlights were slightly cock-eyed.  “Makes it unique,” Kevin said.  “We’ll get those fixed right up,” his dad said, and, of course, they never did.  I inherited the car my father had driven on his route for years, a beige Volkswagen Beetle that was missing its front passenger seat.  My father had removed it so that he’d have an open place to put his deliveries.  Now, like so many of my family’s theoretical belongings, the seat was “out there in the garage,” a phrase to which my father would invariably add, “somewhere.”

We always took Kevin’s car; Kevin always drove.

We went to a lot of movies and sometimes went on real trips, following the church van to Fargo or to Valleyfair and enjoying a freedom of movement unique in the Lutheran Hi-League.  But mostly we rode around town, looking–and only looking–at girls.  We found out where they lived, and drove past their houses everyday, hoping they might be outside, hoping to get a glimpse of them, but paying tribute in any case to all they added to what we fancied as our dried-up and wasted and miserable lives.

“We need music,” Kevin said.  “Take the wheel will you, Phil?”

I reached across and steered while he turned and rummaged among the tapes in the backseat.  I knew it was the closest I would ever get to driving Kevin’s car.

“In Hollywood,: I said, “people on street corners sell maps to the stars’ homes.  Tourists buy the maps and drive around, hoping to see Clint Eastwood mowing his lawn, or something.”  I had never been to Hollywood, but I had learned about theses maps the night before on PM Magazine.

“What do you want?  You want Stones?  You want Beatles?  You want Aerosmith?  What?”

“Mostly they see high walls,” I said, “and locked gates.”  I was proud to have detected this irony alone.

“We should go there,” Kevin said.  “Just take off driving one day and go.”

“Intersection coming up.”

“Red light?”

“Green.”

Kevin continued to rummage.  “Our map,” he said, “exists only in our heads.”

“That’s where the girls exist, too.”

“Oh, no,” Kevin said, turning back around and taking the wheel just in time to drive through the intersection.  “They’re out there.  Maybe not in this dinky-ass town, but somewhere.  They’re real.  We’ll just never know them.  That’s all.”

I had nothing to add to that, but I fully agreed with him.  I had concluded, way back at thirteen, that I was doomed to a monastic life, and I rather wished that I were a Catholic so that could take full advantage of it.  Monastic Lutherans had nowhere to go; they just got gray and pudgy, and lived with their mothers.  Kevin pushed a tape into the deck; it snapped shut like a trap, and the speakers began to throb.

 

Lisa lived in a huge Tudor house of gray stone across the street from the fifteenth fairway.  To our knowledge, she did not play golf, but she was a runner, and on a fortunate evening we could meet up with her three or four times on the slow easy curves of Country Club Drive.  She had a long stride and a steady rhythm and never looked winded, though she did maintain a look of thoughtful concentration and always seemed focused on the patch of asphalt just a few feet ahead, as if it were pacing her.  At intersections, she jogged in place, looking around at the world in surprise, and was likely to smile and throw up a hand if we made so bold as to wave.

Kevin especially admired Lisa because she took such good care of her car, a plum-colored late-model Corvette that she washed and waxed in her driveway evry Saturday afternoon, beginning about one o’clock.  For hours, she catered to her car’s needs, stroking and rubbing it with hand towels and soft brushes, soaping then rinsing, so that successive gentle tides foamed down the hood.  Eventually, Lisa seemed to be lying face to face with herself across the gleaming purple hood, her palm pressed to the other Lisa’s palm, hands moving together in lazy circles like the halfhearted sparring of lovers in August.

Crystal’s house was low and brick, with a patio that stretched its whole length.  From March through October, for hours each day, Crystal lay on this patio, working on her tan–”laying out,” she would have called it.  She must have tanned successive interior layers of her skin, because even in winter she was dusky Amazonian bronze, a hue that matched her auburn hair, but made her white teeth a constant surprise.  Frequent debates as we passed Crystal’s house: Which bikini was best, the white or the yellow?  Which position was best, face up or face down?  What about the bottles and jars that crowded the dainty wrought-iron table at her elbow?  Did those hold mere store-bought lotions, or were they brimful of Crystal’s private skin-care recipes, gathered from donors willing and unwilling by the dark of the moon?  Kevin swore that once, when we drove past, he clearly saw amid the Coppertone jumble a half stick of butter and a bottle of Wesson oil.

Gabrielle lived out on the edge of town, technically within the town limits but really in the country, in a big old crossroads farmhouse with a deep porch mostly hidden by morning glories and ivy.  She lived with her grandparents, who couldn’t get around so well anymore, and so it was usually Gabrielle who climbed the tall ladder and raked out the gutters, cleared the maple tree limbs off the roof of the porch, scraped the shutters, and then painted them.  She had long black hair that stretched nearly to the ragged hem of her denim shorts.  She didn’t tie her hair back when she worked, no matter how hot the day, and she was tall even without the ladder.

Dianne lived in a three-story house with cardboard in two windows and with thickets of metal roosters and lightning rods up top.  At school, she wore ancient black ankle-length dresses in all weathers, walked with her head down, and spoke to no one, not even when called upon in class, so that the teachers finally gave up.  Her hair was an impenetrable mop that covered her face almost entirely.  But she always smiled a tiny secret smile, and her chin beneath was sharp and delicate, and when she scampered down the hall, hugging the lockers, her skirts whispered generations of old chants and endearments.  Dianne never came outside at all.

 

Sherlyn’s house was the first house on the tour.  Only two blocks from Kevin’s, it sat on the brink of a small and suspect pond, one that was only about fifty feet across at its widest.  No visible stream fed this pond or emptied it, and birds, swimmers, and fish all shunned it.  The pond was a failure as a pond, but a marginal success as an investment, an “extra” that made a half-dozen nondescript brick ranch houses cost a bit more than their landlocked neighbors.  Sherlyn’s house was distinguished by a big swing set that sat in the middle of a treeless yard.  It was a swaybacked metal A-frame scavenged from the elementary school.  In all weathers, day or night, since her family moved to town when she was six, Sherlyn could be found out there swinging.  The older she got, the higher she swung, the more reckless and joyful her sparkle and grin.  When she was sixteen, tanned legs pumping in the afternoon sun, she regularly swung so high that the chains went slack for a half second at the top of the arc before she dropped.

“Zero gee,” Kevin said as we drove slowly past.  Kevin aand I didn’t swing anymore; it made us nauseated.

Once a year, Sherlyn actually came out  to the car to say hi.  Each Christmas, the people who lived on the pond, flush with their investment, expressed their communal pride with a brilliant lighting display.  For weeks, everyone on town drove slowly, dutifully, and repeatedly around the pond and over its single bridge to see the thousands of white firefly lights that the people of the pond draped along roofs, bushes, [porches, and railings, and stretched across wire frames to approximate reindeer, Grinches, and magi.  The reflection on the water was striking, undisturbed as it was by current or life.  For hours each night, a single line of cars crept bumper-to-bumper across the bridge, past Santa-clad residents who handed out candy canes and filled a wicker basket with donations for the needy and for the electric company.  Painted on a weather-beaten sandwich board at the foot of the bridge was a bright red cursive missal: “Thank you/ Merry Christmas/Speed Limit 25.”

At least once a night, Kevin and I drove through this display, hoping to catch Sherlyn on Santa duty.  At least once a year, we got lucky.

“Hey there, little boys, want some candy?”  She dropped a shimmering fistful into Kevin’s lap. “No, listen, take them.  Dad said when I gave them all out I could come inside.  I’m freezing my ass off out here.  Oh, hi, Phil.  So, where you guys headed?”

“No place,” we said together.

She walked alongside Kevin’s Firebird, tugging down her beard to scratch her cheek.  “Damn thing must be made of fiberglass.  Hey, check out the Cobb’s house.  Doesn’t that second reindeer look like he’s humping Rudolph?  I don’t know what they were thinking.  No?  Well, it’s clear as day from my room.  Maybe I’ve just looked at it too long.  When is Christmas, anyway.  You guys don’t know what it’s like, all these doggone lights, you can see them with your eyes closed.  I’ve been sleeping over at Melissa’s where it’s dark.  Well, I reckon if I go past the end of the bridge, the trolls will get me.  Yeah, right, big laugh there.  See you later.”  then ducking her head in again:  “You too, Phil>’

With the smoothness of practice, Kevin and I snicked our mirrors into place (his the driver’s side, mine the overhead) so we could watch Sherlyn’s freezing ass walk away.  Her Santa pants were baggy and sexless, but we watched until the four-wheel drive behind us honked and flashed its deer lights.  By the time we drove down to the traffic circle and made the loop and got back in line again,  Sherlyn’s place had been taken by her neighbor, Mr. Clark.

“Merry Christmas, Kevin, Phil,” he said.  “Your names came up at choir practice the other day.  We’d love to have you young fellas join us in the hand bells.  It’s fun, you don’t have to sing, and it’s a real ministry, too.”  He apologized for having run out of candy canes, and instead gave us three-by-four comics about Hell.

 

Kari’s house always made us feel especially sophisticated, especially daring.

“Can you imagine?” Kevin asked.  “Can you imagine, just for a moment, what our parents would do?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “No, I can’t imagine.”

“I think you should try.  I think we both should try to envision this.  That way we’ll be prepared for anything in life, anything at all.”

I cranked down the window until it balked.  “I don’t even want to think about it,” I said.  I pressed the pane outward until it was back on track, then I lowered it the rest of the way.

“Oh, but you’ve been thinking about it haven’t you?  You’re the one who found out where she lived.  You’re the one that kept wanting to drive past her house.”

“It’s the quickest route between Laura’s and Nancy’s, that’s all,” I said.  “But if it’s such a terrible hardship, then you can go around the world instead, for all I care.  You’re the driver; I’m just sitting here.”

He fidgeted, legs wide, left hand drumming the windowsill, fingertips of his right hand barely nudging the steering wheel.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I think she’s a babe.  But this neighborhood, I don’t know.  It makes me nervous.  I feel like everybody we pass is looking at us.”

“Do what you like.  I’m just sitting here,” I said.  I craned to see Kari’s house as we drove around the corner.

Kari lived in what our parents and our friends and every other person we knew, when they were feeling especially liberal, broad-minded, and genteel, called the poorer part of town.  Kari’s yard was something else all right: bright yellows, reds, oranges, and purples, bursting from a dozen flowerbeds.  Every so often, when she wasn’t at cheerleading practice, Kari knelt in the garden, a huge beribboned hat–her grandmother’s maybe–shading her striking angular face.  Her shoulders tightened, loosened, tightened again as she pressed something into place.  Without moving her hands, she looked up at us as we passed.  She smiled widely, and her lips mouthed the word “Hey.”

Once we were around the corner, Kevin gunned the engine.

“Uh-uh, no sir, hang it up,” Kevin said.  “Not in my family, not in this town.  Thousands of miles away, maybe.  That might work.  Oh, but they’d want photos,  wouldn’t they?  Darn.  The other week, all my aunts were sitting around the kitchen table, complaining about their daughters-in-law.  My son’s wife is snotty, my son’s wife is lazy, they aren’t good mothers, they aren’t treating our boys right, and so on and so on.  Just giving ‘em down the country, you know?”

“Uh-huh.  I hear you.”

“And I finally spoke up and said, ‘Well, I know I’m never going to introduce you all to any wife of mine, ‘cause you all sure won’t like her, either.’ ”

“What’d they say to that?”

“They all laughed, and Aunt Virginia said, ‘Kevin, don’t you worry, ‘cause you’re the only boy in the family that’s got any sense.  We know we’d like any girl you’d pick out.’  and then Aunt Bev added, ‘Long as she isn’t any of those from yonder on the poorer side!’  And they all nodded–I mean they were serious!”

After a long pause, he added, half to himself, “It’s not as if I’m bringing anybody home, anyway.”

“You bring me home with you sometimes,” I said.

“Yeah, and they don’t like you either,” he said, and immediately cut me a wide-eyed look of mock horror that made me laugh out loud.  “I’m kidding.  You know they like you.”

“Families always like me,” I said.  “Mamas especially.  It’s the daughters themselves that aren’t real interested.  And a mama’s approval is the kiss of death.  At this moment, I bet you, mamas all over town are saying, ‘What about that nice boy, Phil?  He’s so respectful, he goes to church, he makes such good grades,’ and don’t you know those girls so hot they can’t stand it.”

Kevin laughed and laughed.

“Oh, Phil!” I gasped.  “Oh, Phil, your SAT score is so–so big!”

“Maybe you should forget the girls and date the mamas,” Kevin said.  “You know, eliminate the middleman.  Go right to the source.”

“Eewww, that’s crude.”  I clawed at the door as if trying to get out.  “Help!  Help!  I’m in the clutches of a crude man!”

“Suppose Nancy’s home from Florida yet?”

“I dunno.  Let’s go see.”

“Now, you aren’t starting to boss me around, are you?”

“I’m just sitting here.”

He poked me repeatedly with his finger,  making  me  giggle and twist around on the seat.  “ ‘Cause I’ll just put you out by the side of the road, you start bossing me.”

“I’m not!” I gasped.  “Quit!  Uncle!  Uncle!  I’m not!”

“Well, all right, then.”

 

On September 17, 1981, we turned the corner at the library and headed toward the high school, past the tennis courts.  The setting sun made everything golden.  Over the engine, we heard doubled and redoubled the muted grunts and soft swats and scuffs of impact; ball on racket, shoe on clay.  The various players on the adjoining courts moved with such choreography that I felt a pang to join them.

“Is tennis anything like badminton?” I asked.  “I used to be okay at badminton.  My father and I would play it over the back fence, and the dogs would go wild.”

“It’s more expensive,” Kevin said.  “Look, there she is.  Right on time.”

Denise, her back to us, was up ahead, walking slowly toward the parking lot on the sidewalk nearest me.  Her racket was on one shoulder, a towel around her neck.  Her skirt swayed as if she were walking much faster.

As we passed, I heard a strange sound: a single Road Runner beep.  In the side mirror, tiny retreating Denise raised her free hand and waved.  I turned to stare at Kevin, who looked straight ahead.

“The horn?” I asked.  “You honked the horn?”

“Well, you waved,” he said.  “I saw you.”

I yanked my arm inside.  The windblown hairs on my forearm tingled.  “I wasn’t waving.  I was holding my hand up to feel the breeze.”

“She waved at you.”

“W ell, I didn’t wave at her,” I said.  “She waved because you  honked.”

“Okay,” he said, turning into the parking lot.  “She waved at both of us, then.”

“She waved at you.  I don’t care, it doesn’t matter.  But she definitely waved at you.”

“Are we fighting?” he asked.  He re-entered the street, turned back the way we had come.  Denise was near, walking toward us.

“Of course we’re not fighting.  Are you going to honk at her again?”

“Are you going to wave at her again?”

Denise looked behind her for traffic, stepped off the sidewalk, and darted across the street, into our lane, racket lifted like an Olympic torch.

“Look out!”

“What the hell!”

Kevin hit the brakes.  The passenger seat slid forward on its track, and my knees slammed into the dash.  Dozens of cassettes on the backseat cascaded onto the floor.  Only a foot or two in front of the stopped car stood Denise, arms folded, one hip thrust out.  She regarded us without expression, blew a large pink bubble that reached her nose and then collapsed into her mouth.

“Hi, guys,” she said.

Kevin opened his door and stood, on foot on the pavement.  “For crying out loud, Denise, are you okay?  We could’ve killed you!”

“I was trying to flag you down,” she said.

“What?  Why?” Kevin asked.  “Was there something wrong with the car?”  I saw him swivel, and I knew that, out of sight, he was glancing toward the tires, the hood, the tailpipe.

“Nothing’s wrong with the car, Kevin,” she said, chewing with half her mouth, arms still folded.  “It’s a really neat car.  Whenever I see it, I think, ‘Golly, Kevin must take mighty good care of that car.’  I get a lot of chances to think about that, Kevin, ‘cause every day you guys drive by my house at least twice, and whenever I leave tennis practice, you drive past me, and turn around in the lot, and drive past me again, and every time you do that, I think, ‘He takes mighty good care of that goldarn car just to drive past me all the time.’ “

Someone behind us honked and pulled around.  A pickup truck driver, who threw us the bird.

“Do you ever stop?  No.  say hi at school?  Either of you?  No.  Call me?  Shit.”  she shifted her weight to the other hip, unfolded her arms, whipped the towel from around her neck, and swatted at the hood with it.  “So all I want to know is, just what’s the deal?  Kevin?  Phil?  I see you in there.  Phil, you can’t hide.  What’s up, Phil?  You tell me.  Your chauffeur’s catching flies out here.”

Looking up at Denise, even though I half expected at any moment to be arrested for perversion or struck from behind by a truck or beaten to death with a tennis racket, purple waffle patterns scaring my corpse,  I realized that I had never felt such exhilaration, not even that night on Zumbro Hill, when Kevin passed a hundred and twenty.  My knees didn’t hurt anymore.  The moment I realized this, naturally, the feeling of exhilaration began to ebb, and so before I lost my resolve, I slowly stuck my head out the window, smiled what I hoped was a smile, and called out, “Can we give you a lift, Denise?”

A station wagon swung past us with a honk.  Denise looked at me, at Kevin, at me again.  She plucked her gum from her mouth, tossed it, looked down at the pavement, and then up and then down again, much younger and almost shy.  In a small voice, she said, “Yeah.”  She cleared throat.  “yeah.  Yes.  That’s . . . nice of you.  Thank you.”

I let her have my seat, of course.  I got in the back, atop a shifting pile of cassettes and books and plastic boxes of lug nuts, but right behind her, close enough to smell her: not sweat, exactly, but salt and earth, like the beach before the tide comes in.

“Where to?” Kevin asked.

“California,” she said, and laughed, hands across her face.  “Golly, Denise,” she asked, “where did that come from?  Oh, I don’t know.  Where y’all going?  I mean, whatever.  Let’s just go, okay?  Let’s just . . . go.”

 

We talked:  School.  Movies.  Bands.  Homework.  Everything.  Nothing.  What else?  Drove around.  For hours.

Her ponytail was short but full, a single blonde twist that she gathered up in one hand and lifted as she tilted her head forward.  I thought she was looking at something on the floor, and I wondered for a second whether I had tracked something in.

“Phil?” she asked, head still forward.  No one outside my family had made my name a question before.  “Would you be a sweetie and rub my neck?”

 The hum of tires, the zing of crickets, the shrill steam of air flowing through the crack that the passenger window never quite closed.

“Ma’am?”

“My neck.  It’s all stove up and tight from tennis.  Would you rub the kinks out for me?”

“Sure,” I said, too loudly and too quickly.  My hands moved as slowly as in a nightmare.  Twice I thought I had them nearly to her neck when I realized I was merely rehearsing the action in my head, so I had to do it all over again.  Kevin shifted gears, slowed into a turn, sped up, shifted gears again, and still I hadn’t touched her.  My forearms were lifted; my hands were outstretched, palms down; my fingers were trembling.  I must have looked like a mesmerist.  You are sleepy, very sleepy.  Which movie was it where the person in the front seat knew nothing about the clutching hands in the back?  I could picture the driver’s face as the hands crept closer: Christopher Lee, maybe?  No: Donald Pleasence?

“Phil,” she said.  “Are you still awake back there?”

The car went into another turn, and I heard a soft murmur of complaint from the tires.  Kevin was speeding up.

My fingertips brushed the back of her neck.  I yanked them back, then moved forward again.  This time I held them there, barely touching.  Her neck was so smooth, so hot, slightly-damp?  And what’s this?  Little hairs!  Hairs as soft as a baby’s head!  No one ever told me there would be hairs . . .

“You’ll have to rub harder than that, Phil.”  still holding her hair aloft with her right hand, she reached up with her left and pressed my fingers into her neck.  “Like that.  Right–there.  And there.  Feel how tight it is?”  she rotated her hand over mine, and trapped between her damp palm and her searing neck I did feel something both supple and taut.  “Oooh, yeah, like that.”  she pulled her hand away, and I kept up the motions.  “Oh, that feels good . . .”

The sun was truly down by now, and lighted houses scudded past.  Those distinctive dormer windows–wasn’t that Lisa’s house?  And, in the next block, wasn’t that Kim’s driveway?

We were following the route.  We were passing all the homes of the stars.

Kevin said nothing, but drove faster and faster.  I kept rubbing, pressing, kneading, not having the faintest idea of what I was doing but following the lead of Denise’s sighs and murmurs.  “Yeah, my shoulder there . . . oh, this is wonderful.  You’ll have to stop this in about three hours, you know?”

After about five minutes or ten or twenty, without looking up, she raised her left index finger and stabbed the dashboard.  A tape came on.  I don’t remember which tape it was.  I do remember that it played through both sides and started over.

Kevin was speeding.  Each screeching turn threw us off balance.  Where were the cops?  Where was all the other traffic?  We passed Jane’s house.  Tina’s house.  Streetlights strobed the car like an electric storm.  We passed Cynthia’s house–hadn’t we already?  Beneath my hands, Denise’s shoulders braced and rolled and braced again.  I held on.  My arms ached.  Past the corner of my eye flashed a stop sign.  My fingers kept working.  Kevin wrenched up the volume on the stereo.  The bass line throbbed into my neck and shoulder blades, as if the car were reciprocating.

Gravel crunched beneath us.  “Darn,” Kevin muttered, and yanked the wheel, fighting to stay on the road.  Denise snapped her head up, looked at him.  I saw her profile against the radio dial.

“I want to drive,” she said.

Kevin put on the brakes, too swiftly.  Atop a surging flood of gravel, the car jolted and shuddred to a standstill off the side of the road.  The doors flew open, and both Kevin and Denise leaped out.   My exhilaration long gone, my arms aching, I felt trapped, suffocating.  I snatched up the seat latch, levered forward the passenger seat, and stepped humpbacked and out of balance into the surprisingly cool night air.  Over there was the Episcopal church, over there the Amoco station.  We were only a few blocks from my house.  My right hand stung;  I had torn a nail on the seat latch.  I slung it back and forth as Kevin stepped around the car.  Denise was already in the driver’s seat.

“You want to sit in front?”  Kevin sounded hoarse.

“No,” I said.  “No, thanks.  Listen, I think I’ll, uh, I think I’ll just call it a night.  I’m nearly home anyway.  I can, uh, walk from here.”  I called out to Denise, leaning down and looking in: “I can walk from here.”  her face was unreadable, but her eyes gleamed.

“Huh?” Kevin said.  It was like a grunt.  He cleared his throat.  “What do you mean walk?  it’s early yet.”

The car was still running.  The exhaust blew over me in a cloud, made me dizzy.  “No, really, you guys go on.  I’m serious.  I’ll be fine.  Go on, really.  I’ll see you later on.”

“We could drop you off,” Kevin said.  He spoke politely but awkwardly, as if we had never met.  “Let’s do that.  We’ll drop you off in your yard.”

Denise revved the motor.  It was too dark to see Kevin’s expression as he looked at her.  Her fingers moved across the lighted instrument panel, pulled out the switch that started the emergency flashers, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, pushed it back again.  “Cool,” she said.

“I’ll see you later,” I said.  “Okay?  See you, Denise.  Call me tomorrow,” I said to Kevin.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I said, not looking back.  I waved a cavalier wave, and stuck my hands in my pockets, trying to look nonchalant as I stumbled along the crumbling asphalt shoulder in the dark.

Behind me, two doors slammed.  I heard the car lurching back onto the highway, gravel spewing, and I heard it making a u-turn, away from town and toward the west, toward the lake, toward the woods.  As the engine gunned, my shoulders twitched and I ducked my head, because I expected the screech of gears, but all I heard was steady and swift acceleration, first into second, then into third, as the Firebird sped away, into fourth, and then it was just me, walking.

 

They never came back.

Kevin’s parents got a couple letters, a few postcards.  California.  They shared them with Denise’s parents, but no one else.  “Kevin wants everyone to know that they’re doing fine,” that’s all his mom and dad would say.  But they didn’t look reassured.  Miss Audrey down at the paper, who always professed to know a lot more than she wrote in her column,  told my father that she hadn’t seen the mail herself, mind you, but she had heard from people who should know that the letters were strange, rambling things, not one bit like Kevin, and the cards had postmarks that were simply, somehow, wrong.  But who could predict, Miss Audrey, when postcards might arrive, or in what order.  Why, sometimes they sit in the post office for years, and sometimes they never show up at all.  Criminal, Miss Audrey mourned, just criminal.

Denise’s parents got no mail at all.

I never did, either, except maybe one thing.  I don’t know that you could call it mail.  no stamps, no postmark, no handwriting.  It wasn’t even in the mailbox.  But it felt like mail to me.

It was lying on my front porch one morning–this was years later, not long after I got my own place, thought I was settled.  At first I thought it was the paper, but no, as usual the paper was spiked down deep in the hedge.  This was lying face up and foursquare on the welcome mat.  It was one of those Hollywood maps, showing where the homes of the stars can be found.

I spread it across the kitchen table and anchored it with the sugar bowl and a couple of iron-shaped trivets, because it was stiff and new and didn’t want to lay flat.  you know how maps are.  It was bright white paper, and mighty thick, too.  I didn’t know they made maps so thick anymore.  I ran my finger over sharp paper ridges and down straight paper canyons and looked for anyone I knew.  No, Clint Eastwood wasn’t there.  Nor was anyone else whose movies I had seen at the mall.  A lot of the names I just didn’t recognize, but some I knew from cable, from the nostalgia channels.

I was pretty sure most of them were dead.

I searched the index for Kevin’s name, for Denise’s.  I didn’t see them.  I felt relieved sort of.

“California,” I said aloud.  Once it had been four jaunty syllables, up and down and up and down, a kid on a bicycle, going no place.  California.  Now  it was a series of low urgent blasts, someone leaning on the horn, saying, come on.  Saying, hurry up.  Saying you’re not too late.  Not yet.  Not yet.

California.

 

It’s nearly eleven.  I stand in the cool rush of the refrigerator door, forgetting what I came for, and straining to hear.  The train is passing a bit late, over behind the campus.  My windows are open, so the air conditioning is pouring out into the yard and fat bugs are  smacking themselves against the screen, but this way I can hear everything clearly.  The rattle as my neighbor hauls down his garage door, secures everything for the night.  On the other side, another neighbor trundles a trash can out to the curb, then plods back.  I am standing at the kitchen counter now.  Behind me, the refrigerator door is swinging shut, or close enough.  I hear a car coming.

The same car.

I move to the living room, to the front door.  I part the curtain.  The car is coming closer, but even more slowly than before.  Nearly stopping.  It must be in first gear by now.  There was always that slight rattle, just within the threshold of hearing, when you put it in first gear.  Yes.  And the slightly cock-eyed headlights, yes, and the dent in the side.  I can’t clearly see the interior, even under the streetlight, but it looks like two people in the front.

Two people?  Or just one?

And then it’s the other side of the neighbor’s hedge, and gone, but I can still hear the engine, and I know that it’s going to turn, and come back.

My hand is on the doorknob.  The map is in my pocket.  The night air is surprisingly cool.  I flip on the porch light as I step out, and I stand illuminated in a cloud of tiny beating wings, waiting for them to come back, come back and see me standing here, waiting, waiting, oh, how long I’ve been waiting.  I want to walk out there and stand in front of the car and make it stop, really I do, but I can’t, I can’t move, I’m trapped here, trapped in this place, trapped in this time, don’t drive past again, I’m here, I’m ready, I wasn’t then but now I am, really I am, please.  Please stop.  Present or past, alive or dead, what does it matter, what did it ever matter?  Please.  Stop.

Please.

  

 

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