Shelley’s neck could no longer support her head, and Leo Tolstoy could no longer sustain her attention. He had held it for the few hours of the journey because he possessed that sadistic watchfulness that alone allowed men to write sympathetically about women, and she thanked him for it. But his book had local politics, too much farm gossip, too many contingencies. Art should concern only the essential—the eternal. All the dialogue about how to run a nineteenth-century Russian estate finally put her to sleep; she gave in and rested her head, tightly wrapped in her black hair, pulled taut across head and straggling out on either side in unkempt pigtails, against the grease smear left on the window by the traveler who’d gone before her.
She woke when the train jostled to a stop in one of those little towns where the platform was made of weedy concrete half-crumbled away, nearly unable to bear the weight of its empty vending machine with a dull, decades-old red logo on the front. Shelley peered out through the bleary window at the several rows of houses and buildings between the decaying train-stop and the steep hill of dark woods that marked the edge of the town. How on earth did people live? Had they simply been there all their lives? Did they even know they could leave, or were they like some uncontacted tribe that mistook its forest clearing for all the universe? No, look at those boarded-up buildings, their bricks faded in the sun, the ancient advertising for meats and powdered soaps painted on their sides, almost totally peeled away, and then at the houses with pink or white or yellow aluminum siding, blackened as if a fire had swept through. The denizens of this god-forsaken hole must know of the outside, if only by its sudden withdrawal, the closing of the factories and warehouses, the transfer of the businesses to strip malls along the highways, the receding tide of prosperity that left them stranded, gasping, in dimly-lit bars or in front of their old TV sets, waiting to die of some disease they couldn’t afford to get cured of. Somewhere among these filthy buildings was someone who dreamed of escape, who read old books, someone like her, but who would never get out.
Just then a jaunty sandy-haired gentleman of about thirty-five tumbled rotundly into the empty seat next to her. A startled reflex drew her knees up sharply—and her e-reader slid off her lap and smashed corner-first into the floor.
“Oh jeez, I’m sorry!” said her new traveling companion. “Is it all right?”
She squeezed her small frame beneath his legs to retrieve it from under him. It appeared undamaged, but she couldn’t coax any text back onto the screen. “It’s fine,” she said.
“Good, good. They make them durable these days. We’re lucky to be alive when we are—with civilization on the upswing.”
She stared at the empty screen and said nothing. Just how rude would it be to fish her mp3 player out of her bag and drown this man in Mahler?
He put out his hand: “I’m Gerry. Dr. Gerry, in fact, but you don’t have to call me that.”
“Shelley,” she said, shaking his hand with the tips of her fingers.
He handed her a business card, which she didn’t look at before shoving into her bag.
“So if you don’t mind my asking, Shel, how old are you?” Her pause was long enough that he waggled his be-ringed third finger in her face and added, “I’m happily married, so I’m not trying to pick you up or anything.”
“I’ll be twenty-two in a month.”
“Wow,” he said, his little eyes going distant in his round face. “In college, I bet. Learning a lot, drinking a lot. I remember. Well, it’s what you should be doing at your age. Experimenting. I’m a scientist, Shel, so trust me when I say I believe in experimentation. And don’t let your parents hold you back, you know? Don’t let the priests hold you back. It’s all bullshit. We’re here to put in as much pleasure as we can, and then that will be it.”
He stopped long enough for her to nod, then started to talk again.
“I came back to see my mom. This is where I grew up.” He jerked his thumb toward the window, even though the ruined town was long gone. “And it has its merits, I have some halfway decent memories, mostly of standing around on streetcorners or getting messed up in the woods and just, well, waiting for something to happen. So I was glad to get out. I liked getting out so much that I stayed out.” He gave a startled little laugh, surprised at what he’d said, even though he must have said it before, perhaps often. “I got my B. S., my M. S. and then my friggin’ Ph. D. and now I only have to go back every once in a while to see my mom. Which, let me tell you, because you’re too young to understand, is weird, and not in a cool way, not like experimenting with drugs and such, but weird like those dreams you have where you’re suddenly back in elementary school, staring down a history test you don’t know the answers to, and you realize there at your little desk that your whole subsequent life has been an illusion, a dream you had the night before, and here you are back as a kid, back in school, having to do it all over again. You know those dreams? Dreams don’t mean anything at all, of course, they’re some kind of evolutionary by-product of a more directly functional adaptation, but seeing my mom, in the same beige kitchen, with the same shitty little maple tree in the backyard that I used to stare at through the window…I felt like nothing ever changes. The whole house has this, this smell. Like sweat and grease, like too much cooking oil. Maybe I’m just used to a lab. But she doesn’t get out much anymore, mom, I mean, not since dad passed away. Every Friday she has the priest over for coffee. He’s so friggin’ old—you should see how his hand shakes as he lifts the coffee cup—and she says when he’s gone they’ll probably have to close up the parish. You know, it’s nice of her, but he’s not doing her any good at all. He doesn’t tell her to get out more. He doesn’t say, ‘Come on, Bev, go out to a store, buy yourself something nice, call up your friends, raid your savings and take a trip,’ which is what she needs to hear. No, he says, ‘Come to Mass,’ and ‘All things are possible through God,’ and ‘This too shall pass.’ Honestly, I think she’s depressed. I said, ‘Mom, I’m a scientist, I have studied these things, and I think your brain chemistry is just a little bit out of whack. Go to a doctor and he’ll write you a prescription. Then you’ll feel like getting out more. Get out of this house, you know.’ I told her I’d move her out to the ’burbs with me so she can see her grandkids more, but no. You should see it, Shel, it’s a tragedy, she sits there and watches TV. She cries during the nightly news. You know: four children burned alive, so-and-so was shot, a bomb went off here, X, Y, and Z were tortured there, and during all that she has these tears rolling down her face and a thousand-yard stare. And the only other thing she does is work in the garden. Cry over the news and tend to her weeds. I said, ‘Mom, you need some meds.’ You’re too young, Shel, you don’t know what it’s like yet to watch your folks get old and die. But that’s the stuff of life, which is what I tell her when the news is on. We’re born, we die. If nothing too bad happens in between, then thank your swell luck and enjoy yourself. You know what that priest had the nerve to say to me, when his coffee cup was shaking in his bone-dry hand, Shel? He said, ‘Your scientific ability to explore the Creation is a blessing, Gerald, but to God alone belongs the glory.’ I’m sorry, Shel, but I just hate that kind of thinking. There ain’t no God. There’s just the accident that brought us here and the accidents that happen to us while we’re here. And my mom doesn’t need to hear that kind of talk, what she needs is some meds to get her back in the swing of things. Now, tell me, Shel—and I’m sorry to talk your ear off, I just had to get that off my chest—tell me, what do you study in college?”
As he spoke, he swung his hands open-palmed forward and backward. They looked heavy. Shelley briefly wondered if she should be afraid of him. No: he was too artless to attempt seduction, too dull to attempt rape. He was one of those terribly good people who had nothing inside himself to overcome, which made him think that nobody else did either. She would rather go to anyone but him with her troubles and mysteries, and she imagined nature felt exactly the same—poor nature, to be courted and prodded endlessly by these square-fingered types. A priest of any faith would be preferable. A priest might have the wrong answers, but at least he would know what the questions were. All she wanted now was for this man to shut the fuck up.
But she was too polite not to answer him: “My majors are French and Russian language and literature, my minors are philosophy and political science.”
“Oh well,” Dr. Gerry chuckled, “those are good for Shel at age twenty-two. At age thirty-two, you’ll want something a little more solid. You know, I used to read novels all the time. Mystery, sci-fi, you name it. But one day it hit me that the world is right here—” he brought the meaty side of his hand against the armrest between them—“and that it’s, well, it’s frankly irresponsible to go around making stuff up or paying any attention to made-up stuff. We can do that because our brains developed all sorts of capacities in the course of helping us to find food, find shelter, find a mate, but those capacities are accidental and, I have to say, Shel, mostly useless. The questions are—what’s real? and how we can manipulate what’s real to help the greatest number of people? Atoms and molecules—that’s what’s real. Now the trouble comes in the fact that most people are too busy having the priest over for coffee or reading some old, discredited philosophy books like Plato and such—no offense, Shel—to actually know what the hell’s going on and what’s good for them. Here, take a look at this.”
He brought his shoulder bag from the floor to rest on his belly and then pulled from it a slim tablet computer. He flicked it on, a little rectangle of light balanced delicately on his girth, and squidged his fingers around on the screen. Shelley cast her gaze far out the train window, into the fields blurring by in the dusky light, the cattle blankly grazing, the landscape scarred at intervals by decaying roach-brown barns. She wanted to run through a field and emerge somewhere totally new.
“Look here, Shel,” Dr. Gerry said, nudging her in the ribs with his elbow. On the screen of his tablet glowed the brain in blue-white MRI negative, lit like some deep-sea arabesque of fleshy phosphorescence. His pressed his broad fingertips to two spots on the brain that flashed red at his touch. “Here they are, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, the sections of the brain responsible for the production and reception of language, respectively. There’s where you get your fictions—that’s all. And by the way, I’d rather have my name on some part of brain anatomy than on the spine of some book. But to Broca and Wernicke alone belong the glory.” He paused to await her reaction to this information. She blinked and said nothing, so he sawed his hand through the air between them. “That’s all there is, Shel, all that matters. That’s what I tried to tell my mom, and she said, ‘God’s gonna get you, Gerry,’ and I said, ‘Nope, that’s not how it works, what’s going to get me is the natural and organic decay of matter—unless we can find some way to stop it.’ And in the meantime—” here he put away his tablet and pulled out a warm-looking bottle of sweetened iced tea, the sloshing liquid an unearthly shade of yellow—“I’m going to enjoy myself. What about you?”
She turned her head back to the window and looked out through the blurry grease spot as the fields and emptiness became warehouses and brickyards, all lumber and masonry, civilization’s edge where it assembles itself. The train slowed and rocked along toward the city. A sallow conductor walked the aisle removing passenger cards and announcing that they would arrive in twenty minutes. Travelers emerged from their slumbers, laughed, stretched, and fidgeted, and were understandably all too eager to get their baggage ready to go. Now they would sit with it uncomfortably on their laps for twenty minutes, blank smiles pointed at the narrowing distance.
Shelley excused herself and delicately climbed over Dr. Gerry’s broad lap. She stood at the end of the train car, near the bathroom, and took out her phone to call her father’s house. An impatient, girlish voice demanded, “Yes?”
“Harriet? It’s me, Shelley.”
“Yes, Shelley, we’re expecting you. I can’t pick you up, though, so get a cab from the station and we’ll pay the fare when it arrives since your probably don’t have any money.”
“Actually, I have a stop to make. I’ll probably just take a bus. Don’t wait for me to eat dinner.”
“Oh,” said Harriet, by which she seemed to mean, “Oh, you are a selfish girl,” or “Oh, you are such a thankless child.”
“Listen, Harriet, I’ll be there by eight if not earlier…”
But Shelley never heard her stepsister’s answer to this weak and probably even false reassurance, because just then a woman shoved the bathroom door open. It hit Shelley straight on the elbow, and the resulting reflex caused her to fling the phone against the opposite wall.
“Sorry,” shrugged the woman, her jowl-weighted lips impassive, her milky old eyes bulging with indifference.
The screen was dark and cracked, and the phone would no longer turn on. Shelley ducked into the bathroom that smelled of cheap pink plasticky soap drizzled over shit, she tiptoed past the puddled urine, and she hurled the phone into the toilet with all the force she could gather in her arm. But it didn’t still her; she clenched her molars around the flesh inside her mouth until she tasted blood. She thought she caught the scent of something else besides the bathroom smell, some deeper exhalation of the toilet’s gaped steel mouth: sewage, bilge, not just piss and shit but all the filth combined… For a moment, nausea seized her, and then it gave way.
Again she climbed over Dr. Gerry’s lap. She thought she saw him crinkle his nose at the bathroom stink stuck in the folds of her neat black clothes. She re-settled herself and gathered her things. The train clattered over a trestle above woods strewn with beer bottles, condoms, lost clothes. She saw a vomit-stained shirt half-buried in leaves, a bloody pink flip-flop caught in a root, and here and there black smudges where firepits had been, like cankers on the green.
Dr. Gerry joined her in looking out on the debris at the city’s fringe. “It won’t always look like this,” he said. “They’re making improvements all the time—in landscape renewal, sustainable land use, and the education of the public on how to take care of everything. Right now, if you went out there and said, ‘Hey, let’s put our time and money into keeping these woods clean,’ they would say, ‘Why? It’s just dirt.’ And what they have to learn is that dirt is all we’ve got. And they will. If we can keep the priests out of politics and off the school boards, if we can keep spreading all these great new information resources and technologies…things will get better, Shel, they’ll get better and better. You’ll see. All we have to do is remove the ignorance—” or maybe “the ignorants” is what he said; she couldn’t tell—“and then you’ll see how the world will improve.” He folded his hands over his belly and drew his lips into a little smile, and he waited for the train to arrive at the station.
Shelley looked straight ahead and spoke in a quiet voice.
“At the end of my freshman year of college, I was walking across the Tenth Street Bridge, on the first really warm night of spring, the third Saturday in April. I had left the basement nightclub, a blur of sweat, darkness, rum, and neon, far behind me in the city. In the press of bodies on the dance floor, moist palms had traveled up and down my bare arms in time with the drum machine’s pulse, and I felt I needed to get away. My friends stayed behind, seizure-eyed in the strobe lights. But I climbed out of the dark club, into the humid streets. Cab drivers sat at curbs looking bored, remembering their homelands, as teenagers ran around and shouted, and middle-class ladies from the suburbs cackled drunkenly on their night of freedom from men and children. The city was otherwise quiet: an early baseball game occupied most of the citizens, and I walked out to the river and over the bridge in near silence.
“In no hurry to get back to my dorm, where a few half-finished final papers were all that waited for me, I stopped in the middle of the bridge, at the high point of its arc over the river. The water churned noisily, white scurf flashing up in the moonlight between glassy panes of liquid rolling south. The snow was melting in the north, and the farms and townships below the city would flood, houses and children would be swept away in an instant, and they’d only find them a week later, ruined and dead, tangled in treetops ten miles away. But the water’s noise calmed me as the city’s silence had not. Enveloped in this noise, I could be still and at peace. My face felt flushed from the nightclub, my underarms were damp, and hot blotches the width of men’s hands covered my arms. The bridge, though, was cool: I had taken off my punishing high heels and could feel the remnants of winter trapped in the concrete.
“It was then that the shadow emerged from behind one of the bridge’s suspension pillars and rushed at me. It wore a bulky tan surplus jacket and a black ski mask, and the only sounds it made were a few sharp gasps for breath. Was it male or female, black or white, old or young, a desperate indigent or a sadistic aristo? I would never know. Before it laid a hand on me, an almost automatic motion of my arm stabbed one of my shoes heel-first into its eye. The figure staggered against the bridge rail, crying blood—I heard the shoe splash far beneath us—and we stood facing each other for a moment, suspended high up in the sky. Then, without a thought, without a word of justification in my head, and with the impossible but proverbial strength of a mother whose child is trapped under a truck, I lunged low and pushed up with all my force. The figure rose in the air and then went over the rail. By the time I was brave enough to look down, the river had carried it away.
“Not one car or pedestrian passed. Everyone was baying in the baseball stadium or pawing each other in bars. I adjusted my dress, ran fingers through my hair, carefully dropped the other shoe into the water, and walked the rest of the way over the bridge and up to the university campus, barefoot as a beggar. I worked on my philosophy final paper until three or so in the morning, and then I went to sleep. I don’t remember my dreams. The next day, I didn’t hear anything about any drowning victim.”
She stopped, an odor of dirty water lodged in her nostrils.
By now the train had pulled under the black iron vaulting of the station, and most everyone had gotten off. Dr. Gerry sat silently, hands on his belly, not smiling any longer; he had shut the fuck up. Shelley swung her bag over her shoulder and edged past him, but not before handing him her broken e-reader. “Maybe you can fix this,” she said. She hurried away, running with childish abandon, her black skirt swishing around her legs, down the train’s metal steps and across the empty platform. She had to find a bookstore, and then she had to hurry home: the funerals would be tomorrow. She was an orphan now.
Front page image by Library of Congress.