The first time I saw Bernard he was stepping out of his Jeep onto my parking strip. He was easing onto it stealthily, actually, and he looked like a man who had a problem with being watched. He had wide hips and loose-fitting jeans and a curving breadbasket. His mouth, which looked like a thumb dragged through dough, reminded me of something, someone. A guy at a cash register in Centralia? The drive-through coffee in North Bend? I was winding up the electric lawn mower cord in loops over my elbow and watching him take a last look into his car, and I was looking at his moccasins which looked like shoes that had once belonged to another man who had some ideas bout himself. And right now they were sinking into the juicy grass near the water meter. He shrugged when he saw me.
“Out of gas,” he said.
His voice had a tobacco rattle.I hadn’t heard him come up and figured it was because of the mower and because I was thinking. His eyes had a weak-willed desire for connection, a hungry something I remembered on the faces of the custodians at my one-time start-up, the moth-grease on guys who emptied the trash cans in rooms with the semi-permanent scent of paint and new drywall, a hanging room-memory of cutting and ripping and mudding. He was listening to music on his ear-phones which sounded familiar.
I pointed and said, “Rolling Stones?”
“Out of Time, baby” he said and made horns with his fingers. “Obsolete.”
He didn’t seem drunk, but everything about him was uneven. I nodded along as he walked up the incline toward me in a small brown wave of fear. He could have been coming to take my life or to offer to do yard work. But he stuck out his hand and I felt something tough and bark-like. He pulled off the phones. It was an afternoon in August and the light was shutting down in a semi-hot rectangle near the street lamp. Nothing had happened on my green street all summer and it was easy to stay with this.
I kept rolling the cord. “I like the way the Stones say time,” I said, “like ‘tam.’ “Like, ‘You’re out of tam-o'-shanters.’”
“Well,” he said. “Them’s the Stones. They can do what they want.”
“I meant the accent,” I said. I pointed back at the car. “Anyway -- gas. It’s a hassle.”
He made a tough luck face. “Thing is a car’s a hunk of steel if you don’t got it.” Some Stones radiance sprayed through his buds. A scent of bar smoke floated to me through the grass. “I need to leave the car here ‘til I get back from Oregon,” he said. “Keys are there. I figure forty-eight hours tops, turn around in Astoria.”
“I thought it was out of gas?”
He looked at me. Where had he rolled it from? “Okay,” I shrugged. “But it’s a strange thing to ask to park a car for two days on a street that’s technically free for anyone to park on.” I let the last phrase linger as a city man’s locked-in friendliness.
“Name’s Bernard, by the way,” and said and stuck out his hand again. “You don’t have to not trust me, man.” His grip was murderous. “No one here is looking for trouble. Just need to pick up keys for the monster. Long story. Oh, man. Get back up here and then I’m on my way. I’m out of your hair.” I finished with the lawnmower cord and hooked it on the handle. “Okay. Leave the vehicle in front of the house here for a day or two. We’ll keep an eye on it.”
He walked away, limping a little. Two days passed and in that time the car gathered bird droppings, Bernard didn’t show and Tilda, the woman I’d been with through the high-tech ride of the ‘90s, packed her bags and left. She told me she’d met someone else, just met him, actually, and things had happened “pretty fast.” There was a dark-sky comedy about it. Tilda wasn’t that kind of decision-maker, usually, but vengeance in her had the scale of a big bird. The day was soft and spongy and sunny and she told me on the front lawn while I stood in my white, bare feet cooling my coffee. She may as well have been talking about the events of winter, cursing the over-exposed world of water we lived in. She said she was disappointed that I didn’t wear my pants enough and I’d gained some weight around the middle. I was jowly. My wrinkles weren’t just wrinkles, they were dried wrinkles.
As she talked it occurred to me that the scenery wasn’t really right for this conversation. I looked at the blue sky and said, “I don’t believe you. You’ll be back.” But I wasn’t sure. The lawn had beautiful short grass, the live oak hovering over her car tangled in the air. The asphalt where she stood was black and uncracked and had some of the cast of expensive wood. I knew I’d miss her logic and thighs and I knew that that was how it went, too. She had some kind of A plus B plus C string in her mind that was as tightened as piano wire and I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t wear pants for that. Yet I didn’t.
She told me she hated that I couldn’t take things seriously, or that I pretended I couldn’t. And she couldn’t tell which was worse, the not taking or the pretending not to take. Standing there she was tough and her voice was a toolkit of sounds.
What did I have on my side? This one thing with programming and databases. My singular talent. I could find in worlds of strangling detail a way to pool discreet streams of street addresses into a basin of meaning. Zip codes had gnat patterns in the air that led from neighborhoods to farms, farms to oceans to hard sand. String, phone cords, veinous systems of all kinds. She, on the other hand, owned her dead father’s construction outfit and knew the world of back-end deals and how to get city permits faster and which electricians worked Sundays. I’d just retired early and put my feet up. I liked video games and by now I had a vast library of music. Needless to say, I lost all the arguments with her and then I was watching her luggage wheel over the Romanesque tiling and over the driveway.
“I’ll be back in a few days for the rest,” she said and left. Even when we were younger she liked more the faces of unwavering belief than my various expressions of cowardice and irony and small-but-important secrets. She believed in rewards and punishments. As she was packing her bags she said she’d had enough of my loafing around and sleeping in and my incapacity to read. She read everything – me, the streets outside, the air, the faces of cashiers, road signs, maps, fat books.
“I need someone with more contact with reality,” she said.
“Fair enough,” I’d said the first time, months before. But when she repeated it now I got hot. “Honey, are you kidding? I’m a dot comer. Should I give you a hint of what that’s like? My god! I earned my right to sleep in.”
She stopped, mid-roll. “God, you’re passive. You’re this passive fuck. You fucking ooze, you know that? You sit on the couch and you fucking ooze. Do you remember being at the Shaker village and how you listened to the guide say how they were celibate and then after we left you asked me why I thought they ‘died out’? That just seems like fucking evidence now.”
She was angry and I wasn’t ready for it. She turned to go. “I can give you evidence!” I said, getting heated. “If you want evidence.” I threw up my hands, but it seemed like a gesture from a rock video.
She got in the car and before she’d pulled out I was back in the house. I shut the door and stood in the kitchen. It wouldn’t be long before the neighbors would ask about the car in front of the house, I thought. Was it mine? Did I think it would be sitting there awhile? My neighbors were well-intentioned scolds and librarians who went out into public to feel outraged at what had happened since the last time they ventured out. Tilda liked them. She could offer criticism and had a certain tender mockery but not an end to it. She could cross her arms and say, “I wouldn’t do that, but go ahead.”
Me, I’d done my bit for knowledge and information. I couldn’t see what I had left to give, really.
Two days passed and the truck was still there. I spent a few hours at the Youth Center with the kids with the chemical imbalances, and between trips would peek in the window of the truck to see if anything had changed. It was clean but for a small suitcase tucked behind the driver’s seat. And nary a crumb from McDonald’s on the front seat. It was clean. I watered the lawn in my flip-flops and pajama bottoms. I could sleep in as much as I wanted. My bank account was as green as shit.
Bernard returned in a week. By that time Tilda was almost entirely gone. She’d come back to pack more bags and boxes and she’d had movers come for the pretty old dark green couch. She’d looked at the Jeep out front, shook her head and said it was just like me. People can piss on your leg, she said. And before she left she said, “And you haven’t earned shit, by the way. Just like the rest of us.” She’d been holding on to that.
I was going to miss that part of her upper thigh where it went taut and creamy. Her mouth, too. When Bernard came back I felt an unnatural sense of vindication and I felt friendlier toward the uneven dodge built into his gaze. “You’re just in time,” I said watching him from my porch. He was scratching at the front door lock of the Jeep. “I’m about to have myself a little party.”
“Goddam key,” he said. It was an authentic performance until he turned back and I saw that the lines on his face were like a map of the world poppy trade I’d seen that day on CNN. They were in motion. I offered him a beer and he came up on the porch. “Jesus, that tastes good,” he said. “What is it?”
“German,” I said. “Complicated-sounding hop in it. They call it a ‘big’ beer.”
“It sure does.” He sat down on one of my porch chairs wearily, like a man who’d been working all day, concerned that the manufactured items of the world weren’t up to his weight. A minute ticked by.
“This whole spread yours?” he asked, pointing his thumb back a little conspiratorially.
“Yep. All four bedrooms and the bindweed in back, too.” “Kitchen’s one of them nice kitchens, I can tell,” he said. “Nice neighborhood, though.” He had the whispering sound of a poor man out of his league. “A-right on a day like this, with the sun.”
I didn’t reply. How did he get his car up the hill, again? “Where are you coming back from?” I asked finally.
“Bend, Portland,” he said.
“Couldn’t track down my brother.”
“I thought you were picking up the keys.”
“It’s my bro’s car,” he said.
“Well,” I said, taking a drink, “not that I care, but your story has some holes in it.”
“Okay,” he said and licked his lips. “Okay. You look like a good guy. And you let me park it here. So yeah, it’s my brother’s car. But truth be known, you know, I took it. Guy there has three others from the Nike mill. I figured I was down on my luck and it wouldn’t hurt to relieve him of the insurance payments.”
“You pushed it up from Bend? I said.
“Guy, man. I had the key. A key. Not the trunk key, but that’s okay ‘cause there’s a button inside for the trunk. I lost it in Pioneer Square when I was there one night, in a room.”
He took a moment. “Truth be known I was in a room. I rented a room to be with a woman for a space of time.”
“Ah,” I said. Tilda’s teeth flashed up. I had a little ache in me for them, for what was behind them. “So the hooker stole your key.”
He stared at me. I had rarely in my life used the word “hooker.”
“Woman I was with I suspect was capable. Anyhow, somewheres it dropped out of my pants. Then I didn’t go back for a week because I didn’t. And when I did how can I find her? I kind of didn’t know her name.”
“I’d just have asked,” I said.
“Trust me on this one. That type of tactic don’t never work.”
The way he said it made me understand him a little.
My hobby was collecting old design draughts of classic American cars – the huge ones on onionskin paper that design engineers once drew in pencil on big drafting tables. My rec room had one carefully drawn car door from the 1948 Studebaker design. It was beautiful. Before you were oriented it had the look of a street map of a foreign city without buildings sketched in. I was drawn to car doors especially and liked to think how they designed for the right slamming sound -- kunk and oompk. I thought about showing it to him, to see what he’d think.
“I looked in your car while you were away,” I said. “I cupped my hand to the window and took a peek. Nothing in there but your suitcase.”
“Yeah,” he said. He lit a cigarette.
And then I said it. “If you need a place for a few days I have a bed over my garage.” It was a bit of a third-beer what-the-hell thing. But I was interested and I didn’t care very much if he stole from me. The furniture up there was from Macy’s anyway, and I had a decent back-up system on my computer. The tube amplifier would be tough to lose – but Bernard looked more like a Sony gear and cash guy anyway. He looked into my eyes for a minute then knocked his beer against mine. “Well,” he said, “what the hell? I ain’t busy.” He pulled out his suitcase and I showed him the space over the garage: pretty nice, he concluded, tire-kicking the pedestal sink in the bathroom.
The next morning he was taking apart appliances and rewiring and rebuilding them. The toaster, the lawn-mower. “Sharpen up this blade,” he said, not looking up when I visited him. “Toaster element’s all fucked.” This continued for a week until one day I came home early from a hike, went in to say hi and found a light fixture dangling from the ceiling and him making out with a woman with a zitty face. I lost it and said some wild things and they both disappeared until dark.I was strangely apologetic then and so was he and as a guy moment of good will we decided to go to the movies. So as good will we both agreed to go to the movies. He liked Matthew McConaughey, so we went to see a movie in which the actor moved across rooms in a way that is endearing but you don’t really trust him or his brow. In one scene he shouted at co-workers but in a way that made us laugh. And somewhere his efforts had accumulated into a car he was driving that was headed down a hill towards a cable car, which led to him feeling torment about his life. I liked watching him do all that stuff, including the one scene where he bends over in the office men’s room to douse his face with water. I couldn’t figure out why but he clearly needed to refresh himself, kind of in the way that one of the laws of movies is that vomiting always means that the character has just seen part of his life disappear. In the men’s room, with water cupped in his hand, Matthew was between baptism and a blazing garbage dump. After the movie was out we left to go to a bar to talk.Bernard allowed that he’d had his own cable-car incident, so to speak. I asked him to explain.
“Well, long and short,” he said. “The Oregon police have a warrant out.”
“For the car?”
“No.” He waved that off. “Misunderstanding about my brothers’ mother-in-law is what it is. Mother-in-law-law.”
I was quiet. I could see that it wasn’t bad keys and uneven luck with women that was his theme. He’d come into the world a day ahead of something bad at his back and he was spending his life trying to keep the one day between himself and it. Listening to him the wind seemed to shift. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I just hit her hard.”
“You hit a woman with your fists?”
“Well, it was probably the faucet I was installing in her bathroom at the time that hurt. I guess I heard a tone the wrong way.”
“I know the tone,” I said. “Kind of Human Resources.”
“Human resources, bro’. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Crows lift off transformer lines when that tone comes down,” I said. “It tells nature that nature isn’t present.”
“Yeah,” he said, disregarding me. “Well she flipped my switch and I cracked her.”
I thought of the sound. “And so your brother’s car --?”
“Now well across state lines. But they don’t necessarily know where to find me. I have family in Oregon and Idaho. So far as they know I’ve never been to Seattle.”
The dusk was settling over us when we left the bar.
“Yeah,” he said as we walked. “I kind of drifted after that.”
Through an open window we heard someone scraping food from a plate. I was flooded with memories of Barcelona, the knock of shoes on uneven streets.
“I knew a guy who drifted after he drove into an ambulance. He killed the driver and he went to jail for two years and when he came out he wasn’t looking into the lens grinding trade, if you know what I mean. The mind was shot at that point. He can’t concentrate. He’s got the edge of a guy in small engine repair, with fears he don’t have before. He shakes everybody’s hand coming and going. Can’t find a girlfriend, arches are fallen. So he got in his car and pretty soon he was halfway across the country. Ended up in Bend, Oregon driving a bus.”
I tried to see the Oswald swerve of lives he was describing.
“Here’s my theory,” he said, when we were in the car. “My theory is that a guy takes off like that when he doesn’t want to stay in a place where he’ll know what he can do, really. Like, consequences.”
“People have their own trajectory anyway,” I said. “Listen, man. No one comes into the world with a natural urge to vacuum the trunk of his car. Guys I’ve known who’ve left the track have seen something. Somebody they knew died or they fell in love with a certain thing in their mind or something opened up and suddenly they didn’t want to make donuts all night anymore. They wanted to drink and tell stories and smell dirt all night.”
Bernard was buried once. He and two friends who were out of work down in timberland made a pact to stay in a box underground for an hour and a half each, taking turns. They found a clear cut area and worked out the time over a couple of weeks, considering different options and how much night-time they’d have for their experiment. They arrived at an hour and a half because they figured an hour was too easy and the last half hour would determine which of them would go screwy. Each had a theory as to who would go, too. They would have no walkie-talkies for panic and knew that no amount of pounding on the top would be heard. Their agreement was to keep a wound watch there. They knew what the exercise was about. Once the last spade of earth was on the box they would wait 78 minutes and start digging, figuring the remaining minutes would add up to 90, and figuring that the person in the box wouldn’t even hear the shovels until around minute 89. Each man would be three feet down (it would be murder to shovel six feet of dirt three times in a night) and once the cover was on and the first spade of earth on it that would be it. It might be 90 minutes and it might be forever. Any of them could die.
They worked out all the details. Ninety times three was four and a half hours, or the center of the night. If they screwed up it would still be night. They would start from 12:30 and go to 5 a.m., the fillet. They packed two shovels, two pairs of gloves, coffee in thermoses, sandwiches, jugs of water and extra pants.
“I went first,” Bernard said. “To get it over with. And because I seemed to want to know it more.” We were at home. Bernard had come out of the garage while I was mowing the lawn again. We were sitting in lawn chairs and talking in the middle of the afternoon. I asked him how it was.
“It’s all dense,” he said. “I don’t know how else to say it. Time is slow, and it’s got – it’s like cake, it’s textured. My fear was that the top would stow in. I kept feeling the weight, like a Mack truck had fallen on the box and was holding it all down and in and packed in there. It was heavy. It was also freezing.”
“Did you consider that the other two might ditch you,” I asked. “And have all the sandwiches to themselves?”
Bernard said no. “That’s the last guy’s problem. They could screw the other guy over and let him die. You see?”
“So how did you even that up?”
“He took our watches and credit cards and boots down into the earth with him. You need boots to get out of being that far in timberland.” After ten minutes of that darkness, Bernard said, he knew. He was sightless and didn’t know where his body was and it was hard to breathe. He felt things in the air and thought he might choke on whatever it was, on the fur of it. After thirty minutes all the pins of time were pulled out; he didn’t know where he was in it. And after more time – he couldn’t tell -- and before he heard the shovels digging, he was crying and afraid of the ocean of shadow that passed over him. On the plus side he had something new with the ladies that seemed to burn brightly in him.
“Something like a radiance,” he said.
“Some extra touches with the ladies. Man comes that close to death he has a certain something. Trust me on this one.” I nodded. “They see the light on in my room,” he said. “The animals from the park start to show up, too. I’ve felt their whiskers on me.”
“You mean when you’re sleeping?”
“When I sleep in the park. Yeah. Tickling sensation.”
Tilda came back the third week when the place had developed a sweet smell, like ripe bananas or a barn with twine hanging on a nail by the door. Bernard was in the kitchen heating up soup. C-Span was on. I’d just pulled on a new pair of Levi’s, measuring my physical decay as I did. Then she was scraping her key in the front door and I remembered we had an appointment. And then she was there, in sexy shoes and clean skin. I wondered what she would say.
We politely hugged. One of Bernard’s shirts was laying on the couch. She lifted it up. “What in the fuck?” she said.
Bernard came out of the kitchen, shirtless. She saw him and jumped. “Holy Jesus.”
I’d forgotten he was frightening to look at.
He came at her the way he had me that first day. He shook her hand. “I don’t blame you a bit for being afraid. I’d jump myself if I saw this mug.” He grinned. He was using his inside whispering voice but he’d forgotten that he had missing teeth. Soon Tilda and I were in a room upstairs.
“He’s moved in, Greg,” she said. Her face was calm.
“He’s in the garage,” I said.“Okay, so out of curiosity, what are you getting out of this? Exactly? It’s none of my business.” She was breathing harder.
“Yes, I’m ‘letting this happen,’” I said, making air quotes.
She took that in. “I guess there’s something about you that’s missing or something. A man like that. It’s frightening and I think something’s going on. You’re experimenting with something, flirting with something. Your parents didn’t finish you.”
“I don’t agree,” I said. “Anyway, what is your stake in this? At this point?”
She looked at me. “Greg, I spent time with you. I’d just prefer to think of you as mentally stronger. Don’t you have a stake in your own life?” I held her gaze, then sighed.
“Honestly, I hate it,” she said. “It reflects on me.”
I saw her three times after that. Once as I was circling the Ace hardware parking lot and saw her coming out with a rolled up screen, walking with a man with over-sized ears. She saw me and her hand went to her face as if to protect it. Another time we were both in the same theater, seeing each other at intermission. The last time was on the Aurora bridge driving in opposite directions at rush hour. Our eyes locked for a moment in the sun, spinning hard.
There was a fourth time, too, in a way. It was in a dream. We were in California, in a house on the coast. I was sleeping in and when I woke up she wasn’t there and, in that odd way of dreams, hours had passed. Large trucks hummed a mile back and after more time passed I got up, dressed and walked down to the beach. She wasn’t there. When I came back she was on the front porch staring at her wristwatch, sky and branches reflecting off it. Had I missed her the first time?
“Where is that barking dog coming from?” I said. “What dog?” she said, noticing the dog only then. I said, “I have a lot of drawings of streets but the streets look like photographs of children.” I handed them to her and she took them and stared at them without saying anything.
I woke up and went out to the living room.
It was early in the morning and the wind was pulling leaves from the walnut trees lining my driveway. I was up with some animal circling thing, a sound in my system like gravel under truck tires. I was making toast when I told Bernard he’d have to be moving on, which I said as if he was a hobo.
“I’m putting this up for sale tomorrow,” I said. “The house. I got to get a move on myself.”
He asked where I’d be going.
“Oh Jesus,” I said. “I’m not going into details.”
He knifed into a plastic container of peanut butter and ate from it. “I figured it’d come to this,” he said and turned for the garage.
I followed him out the back and across the concrete walkway and up the steps to his place. It had the sweet, sealed odor of mechanics’ skin and he had a transistor radio on nearby. A half dozen projects were laid out on towels and butcher paper: my Dirt Devil, the clock radio, a car radio, a tool he said he was using to work on the brake drums, anti-squeal compound. Needle-nose vice-grips.
The voices on the radio were talking about books. I looked at Bernard’s greasy hands and the brake pads on the paper. “They’re talking about poetry,” I said.
“It was on so I left it,” he said. “A half hour ago a guy was reading something about the sound of air in the trees at night being different. ‘It sifted differently,’ the guy said.”
Out the window the lawn was a black square.
“I can get a lot done now,” Bernard said. “I can get a little coffee going and I can concentrate.”
“On poetry,” I said.
He looked at me, seeing the joke. I saw his wide hips and could feel how he could pull car seats out of junked cars in the parts yard.
“Yeah, engines and rhymes, dude. I got keys made the other day.”
“The car is drivable at last?”
“Oh yeah. We’re nearly there. I’m taking it for a test run in an hour if you want. Brake job is com-plete. Plus it’s just past four. Nary another car out there. We could be in wilderness before it was Egg McWich time.”
We were on I-5 an hour later, whisking under overpasses with the men heading out to fish. A few minutes out of the city we pulled into a rest stop where we both visited the men’s room. It had a urine-coated sheet-metal trough. We silently shared it, pissing for a full 45 seconds. Then we left through a woody fluorescent restaurant that looked a little like a space ship. We bought pastries and coffee and in minutes were back on the highway. Past Olympia we turned toward the coast, toward timber country, and as the hills of Gothic trees approached and rolled away I thought about the walk into it, the finding of a spot, the sound of the shovels on earth. He interrupted me.
“Rip Van Winkle here,” he said. “That’s an East coast thing.”
“Yeah? Maybe with different trees and green and all. But it came out of this.”
“We’re close?” I said. He nodded and that gave me the chance to ask if he’d had complete thoughts down there or only immediate sensations. There wasn’t much difference, he said, his inner wrist sitting on top of the wheel. He repeated certain phrases like “I don’t know” until they lost meaning. Before the full-on panic set in he had a memory of the best thing that had happened to him until then. It was in Olympia a couple years before: he awakened on the hood of someone’s car in a bumpy driveway, pine needles on his arms, sun on his face, his mouth dry. The owner of the car, an Evergreen College administrator, was holding a coffee.
“At the time it didn’t mean nothing. I took the cup and drank it like I did this every morning. It wasn’t ‘til I was in the earth that I saw the idea of his kindness. He could’ve raised up a firearm on me but he just gave me the cup and told me to take care of the pine gum around my eyes. Just leave the cup on the front steps, he said. That was it. He had to go to work.”
I said that if I were down there I’d miss the neck smells. Certain women carried alluvial systems near their collar bones.
“I would’ve thought that too,” Bernard said. “But that’s more or less sentiment, if you know what I mean. I got faces. I got waves of faces. Ideas and images. I wouldn’t of thought that. Smells and such, my girlfriend’s neck – that shit left me the first ten minutes.”
I thought of the last time I was close enough to the earth to smell it. The summer before last. I was digging in the garden, in a spot Tilda had pointed out for planting a tree. I went in a lot deeper than I needed to and at one point picked up a thick wedge of sod that had some of the heft of a severed head, or so I figured. I brought it up to my nose and the smell had something long and deep in it, a library quality that had a few other strands – like toast and fire and steel smell backed out of something or somewhere. Around the exit for Astoria he pulled the truck over to the side of the road.
“I think this is it, yeah. Feel like paying a visit?”
I said sure and we left the truck and started to walk through stand after stand of Giacametti fir trees. We walked for fifteen or twenty minutes, until we were both out of breath and perspiring before we came the edge of a swamp.
“This was land when I had it. You could get this for nothing back when it was a bunch of dumb guys out here in caulks. I once had an ambition to be the rigger. Once upon a time.”I guessed he was planning to drain the swamp. He interrupted me as I was saying it. He pointed.“House there -- see it? At the right angle you can see the gable roof.” He looked at me but I was caught and couldn’t answer. I’d knelt down and caught the roof, a shadow in dark water. I saw scalloped wood at the peak. “I built it when I had a girl and the lumber company had some edge property,” he said.I thought of a joke and told him. A guy in a bar asks a nerd, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ The guy pulls out a pencil and does a lot of complicated figuring on a napkin and then says, ‘X equals Y. But also Y equals X.’
“More or less a mathematician’s joke,” I added.
“Well, I ain’t a mathematician.”
“The earth kind of opened up on it here,” I said. “It accepted your work.”
We stared for another few minutes, thinking about the size and scale of it. Then he said he wanted to stay. I paused with that and decided I needed to leave. I had to get going. I turned and walked and went for what seemed like an hour through fat, dirty birch trees, stiff firs, Scotch pines. I kept thinking that what I liked about him was a certain soft falling sense, like snow down a well. I got back to the highway, climbed into the car he’d fixed, found the keys in the ignition and drove it home. It had a good vibe, a good history. Driving and seeing the narrow trees on my way back it seemed clear that my own life wouldn’t change much now. I was in my late 30s but things were set, and to some extent I could tell I’d go through a period of not changing my underwear much, of drinking at downtown hotels, of getting stoned on Sundays and jerking off to Monica Belluci movies. I gave the Jeep a paint job and after a week or two I was driving it as my second car, the one I’d use for bullshit errands like chasing six blocks down the street for CDs or cheddar, or to take my sweaters to Value Village. I figured no one else would ever hunt down the title, so why should I?