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Mike closed down the job, sticking with Dave Congdon’s rule “When you step in the paint pan you have to go home.” Almost burning the house down certainly qualified as a day-ender, even at ten in the morning.
Carol Ann ran home to put on jeans and a Strand bookstore t-shirt (“Seven miles of books”), then they drove into town for what she called a ‘treat coffee’. The dissonant chord of near calamity was still subsiding along their piano string nerves. Mike could feel the vibration, even as the silence settled.
“Well, that was scary,” he said, rounding the ‘Sconset war monument.
“I wouldn’t think anything would scare you now.”
“Are you kidding? Everything scares me.”
They drove past the wide lawns and the colonnade of elm trees on Main Street, the big houses set back behind hedges. The old jeep crested the hill and they cruised down into the snap-line straight monotony of Milestone Road.
Carol Ann looked out the window at the blur of stunted pine trees. “Sorry. That was stupid. Of course you’re scared.”
“It’s smart to be scared sometimes. That was close today.”
She nodded. “Wood houses …”
“The worst part would have been facing my Dad. This would have confirmed everything he thinks about me. I can just hear him -- “I’m angry and heartbroken ... but not really surprised.” What a prick.”
“I never liked him.”
“He was one of those grown-ups who don’t know how to play with kids. He’d be swinging me around by my arms or something and it was fun for a few seconds but he couldn’t tell when it started to freak me out. Suddenly I’d be crying and he had no idea why. Plus he never laughed at my jokes.”
“You told him jokes?”
“He was there. If you were in the line of fire and I just heard a new joke, that was it. Hey, do you know where I can get a Henway?”
“What’s a henway?"
“Oh, about two and half pounds.”
They both laughed. Mike took a hand off the wheel to high five her.
“Your Dad didn’t even crack a smile,” she went on. “He said ‘That’s a very good joke, Carol Ann.’ Thanks a lot, Mr. Jowls. I called him Mr. Jowls sometimes.”
“I never said it to his face.”
They drove on, past the steady traffic heading the other way – electricians’ vans, pick-ups, even a tour bus. The season was already starting up.
“Dad doesn’t even know I’m working on the house,” Mike said.
“Won’t he be pleased?”
“He’s more the old New England Yankee type -- let it fall apart around you and never spend a dime.”
“But what about when it actually falls apart? Like all the rot you found?”
“Then you hire some crusty old guy you play gin with at the Wharf Rats Club to do the exact minimum work required and leave the rest for next year. Which conveniently never arrives.”
Carol Ann reached over to touch his shoulder. He tensed and she felt it. She let her hand flop back down onto the vinyl seat between them like a shot bird. “I think your Dad’ll be pleased when he sees it,” she said. “I mean ... it’s nice. Someone loves his house enough to take care of it.”
Mike kept his eyes on the road. “Yeah, well, it’s just the opposite, sorry. It’s me saying ‘You’re negligent. You don’t care and I do.’ It’s insulting. Like when a customer ostentatiously picks your paint chips out of the mulch. Don’t expect a big bonus on that job.”
A Marine Home Center semi roared at them and past, hauling a load of lumber to some job site on the east end of the island. The air battered between the two vehicles for a second.
Mike and Carol Ann were quiet until they got their lattes. She sipped hers quietly until they were almost home.“I felt so bad for Mr. Congdon,” she said finally. “I didn’t know what to say to him.”
Mike shrugged. “It’s probably better to say nothing. People don’t want to be told to feel better because they’re not going to. They don’t want to be asked how they’re doing because it’s obvious and they don’t want to hear you understand because you don’t.”
He relented. “I guess just sorry is enough. Or maybe ... you can’t understand how they’re feeling and you’re glad you can’t. Who wants to understand that shit? My advice is to avoid any inkling of that shit as long as possible. Especially if you’re a kid.”
“I’m not a kid. I’m eighteen. I can vote. I can go to war. I could drink if I lived in Trinidad and Tobago.”
“Sounds like you’ve researched that one. But it’s not worth moving, believe me. And the other perks aren’t that great, either.”
She seemed to be contemplating his warning. She finished her coffee in a long gulp. They started back down the broad tree-lined drive into ‘Sconset.“I liked Teddy Congdon,” she said. “He played air guitar really well. He won at the Muse the week before he left. I was like, if you’re going to play air guitar that well? I mean do it so perfectly? Why not actually learn to play the guitar? He said, ‘The air doesn’t hurt my fingertips.’ I said, you get callouses. He said ‘I don’t want callouses. I like my fingers just the way they are.’”
“Then he made some weird choices.”
“I’m not sure he had a choice, Mike. He got into trouble. I don’t know the details. But he thought he was invulnerable anyway. He played too much Gears of War, that’s my theory. I hate X-box. Playstation -- all that stuff. At least with TV you know you’re a lump on the couch watching other people. You can’t pretend you’re doing something. I yelled at him once, I said you’re doing nothing all day. And he said, ‘It’s interactive!’ As if that meant anything.”
“Well, it’s extremely interactive where he wound up.”
“But with no reset button.”
“Yeah. There’s that.”
They were back at her house when the conversation stumbled. The rain had arrived on giant gusts of wind, the sky dark as late afternoon, though it was still morning. Carol Ann built a fire and they sat in her big living room warming themselves in front of it.
After a while she said, “I love watching fire. It looks so ... solid, and it isn’t. It’s just energy. I love the way it sort of folds and waves and parts of it detach and just disappear. And the way it hugs the logs as they burn. And the way it perks up when you put another log on. It comes alive again. Food makes it hungry. I like the way it crackles, and those gun shots when a knot explodes. Plus it just smells warm. I’ll be walking outside in February and smell wood smoke and just feel warmer. I can’t explain it.”
He glanced up at her.She twisted her mouth into some adorable combination of smile and frown, lips curled down, chin out. “OK. I’ll, shut up.”
“No, it’s fine. I agree with you. I like fire when it’s under control. I just hope you don’t burn scrub pine in here. The creosote builds up in the chimney. If that starts burning, forget it.”
“So nothing is safe?”
“Life is a minefield. That’s what this guy I knew used to say. Life in general. You’re walking along and then bang -- a car crash, a lump in the chest, a chimney fire, whatever.”
“So what do you do?”
“I don’t know. Just keep walking. Try to forget about it. You don’t want to wince with every step. But, you know, burn hardwood in the fireplace, signal when you make a turn. Get check-ups. Be smart.”
“Wear a mask when you sand lead paint?”
He ducked his head. Busted. “That, too.”
The logs crumbled into a pile of coals.
"I hate it when fires burn down,,” she said.
“There’s something about ashes. They just -- ugh. I mean, after everything, that’s what you get? And they’re so heavy. You don’t realize how heavy they are till you have to shovel them out of the fireplace.”
“It’s the cycle of life.”
“I hate the cycle of life.”
“You’re getting the good part now. Enjoy it.”
“Right. I’m young. I have my whole life ahead of me.”
“Well -- ”
“-- which will be over in about twenty seconds. Ask anybody that’s old. They all say the same thing. They can’t believe they’re sixty or whatever -- seventy. And it all went by so fast. One second their kids were babies and like between diaper changes or something they were in college. Next thing the grandkids are getting drunk at your funeral. It’s a crappy set-up. Plus it’s a minefield. Like your friend told you.”
“I visit my grandma at the Island Home a couple of times a week. At first I hated it -- all these creepy half-dead people foot pushing themselves around on wheel chairs or dozing off in the halls or chanting weird stuff, totally out of it. But the more I went the more I saw, you know? Turns out it’s a whole little world in there, with politics and feuds and friendships, and geeks and jocks and a cool group --”
“You should see some of those guys tearing around on those walkers. I’m serious! So anyway, I started this story, and it seems like a high school story, some YA thing about crushes and rivalries and who said what about who, and who’s in and who’s out -- but at the end you realize the story is set at a nursing home. Cool, huh?”
“Actually, yeah. If you can pull it off.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.”
“Sorry. It just sounds tricky, that’s all. How do you deal with classes and teachers?”
“Lots of them take a writing class at the Salt Marsh Center. I mostly talk about that. And the Fair.”
“Right. The Island Home Fair.”
“Have you ever gone?”
He shook his head. She threw another log on the fire. It caught instantly, so she crossed it with another one.
“Don’t go,” she said. “It’s a very depressing fair. They should call it the unfair.”
“The story sounds good, though. You should write it.”
“I am. Thanks for the permission, professor. I’m actually almost done."
“I talk to the people there all the time. I mean really talk.”
“That’s nice for them.”
“I do it for me. We talk about dying, how they feel about dying.” She moved back from the fire. “I think about death all the time.”
“Really?” Mike tried to keep the warning out of his voice, pitching the question high, smiling.She was moving too fast to read the road signs; or maybe they were illegible anyway.
“Most people never think about it at all," she went on. "They just assume they’re immortal -- like Teddy. They just deny it. You should see the family members visiting at the Island Home. They can’t wait to get out of there. I wrote a two line poem about it. Want to hear?
Young people think old age is /A disease that’s contagious.
It’s totally true. They use about a million gallons of that hand sanitizer stuff every day and the joke is on them because it wrecks your immune system. Anyway, I’ve read all the existential writers – not just Camus and Sartre, but Heidegger and Kierkegaard and Ortega Y Gasset and Paul Tillich, everybody. I really studied them, Mike. But it’s not just that. I lie in bed every night and just close my eyes and try to feel it, try to really imagine not existing, just not being there, being gone. I try to face it every day, deal with it every day.”
He stared at her. “Why?”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because it’s important. It’s real. I don’t want to just skip along living in some stupid dream-world. I look, around at all the people I know, my Mom and Dad, my brothers, all the kids in school, and they seem so – I don’t know. So shallow and oblivious and just silly and sad at the same time. Like they just don’t get it.”
“And you do.”
“I think I do, yeah. I look death in the face every day and I don’t blink.”
Maybe it was because the childish bravado of her lecture was giving him a flashback, seeing Mio again and the blank look on Noah’s face, comprehension so far behind events, a stranded commuter watching the bus dwindle in a cloud of exhaust, the echoes that seemed to keep bouncing between the cliff walls forever, the hot wet lash that knocked him over. He had thrown out an arm to break the fall. Mike touched his wrist, feeling the long-healed fracture.
The bone had knitted very well.
Or maybe it was none of that. Maybe it was just her tone. She was like a precocious toddler wearing world weary wisdom like the grown –up clothes in her parents’ closet. Mike had seen that artless arrogance knocked down, demolished, disfigured, too many times.
It was a disease but the cure wound up killing you.
“You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he got up and left the house. The rain had increased, the worst of the storm bearing down on the island. Lightning spiked over the ocean, the thunder simultaneous. It felt like the impact of the electricity on the water, bullet on bone. Standing upright on the broad lawn he was the obvious next target. Mike sprinted for the back door.
He was drenched by the time he got inside.