By Christopher Killheffer - New Haven, Connecticut, USA - Advent/Christmas 2010
Lou was already out back when his wife pulled into the driveway. He had beaten her home, as usual, by almost an hour, and had already downed a beer, taken the dog out, and listened to half a Zeppelin CD before he saw her headlights flash across the garbage cans. He was standing behind the house, smoking near the kitchen window that he had left open, despite the December chill, so that he could hear the music.
"Hey," she said, lugging a bag of groceries.
"Hey." He held the door for her and let it close softly before lighting another cigarette. He didn't look inside, but could tell by the amount of noise she made putting away the groceries that she was already irritated. As always, he thought. High heels clacking heavily on the linoleum, dishes clanging in the sink. Lou let out a smoky sigh.
He turned his attention back to the music. There was a pause, and he thought for a moment that she had turned it off, but then a new song began. Ah – Kashmir. He drank it in, let himself be lost in its movement, like the smoke rising up from his lips and floating away. What could be better than Kashmir? He had loved the song since high school, and was convinced that his love for it was something much more than just nostalgia – he loved Kashmir for what it was, what it said, not for any memories it evoked. It couldn't just be for memories – he couldn't bear to be one of those suited chumps in the sports bars, those guys who try to disguise their boredom with a little Van Halen and talk of high school glories. No, it was the other way around for Lou: for him the music itself was the point, and youth itself was good only because that's when life felt like Kashmir, when it had the same throbbing strangeness, the same feeling of layers on layers of abundant meaning. Kashmir was the sound of life saying something. But what did life say now?
He glanced inside and saw his wife stomping out of the kitchen. The place already seemed cleaner since she'd been home; the counters had that sterile IKEA look she was always grasping for. It didn't seem like his house at all in there – it was like looking into one of those suburbs she coveted, the realm of big plastic houses and tree-less lawns, everything in its place, everything tidy. Kashmir would sound ridiculous there, sitting on of one of those backyard cedar decks, presiding over the cul-de-sac. You'd have to be drunk to hear it at all.
He could still hear it here, outside in the dingy neighborhood they had lived in since getting married: at the outskirts of the city, only half-suburb, gritty and working-class enough to earn his wife's contempt. And how perfect to hear it coming from the window as if from far away, while he smoked in the cold, surrounded by the trash cans with their mild stink, the weeds poking through the deep cracks in the driveway.
Movement inside caught his attention, and he turned to see his wife walking quickly out of the room again. Huffing a lot tonight, he thought. She had disappeared into the living room, that clean beige world of crisp lines, fragrant candles and mass-produced folk art. He could see through to the smiling wooden cow that sat upright on the mantle, dangling a fishing line. Even in the driveway he could catch hints of the huge vanilla candle on the coffee table. She loved vanilla. Her hair had smelled of vanilla when they first went out in high school, and the scent was still there, that old smell of adolescent desire, embalmed now in candle wax.
She appeared in the kitchen, holding a phone to her ear. She said, "Hold on a minute, Jen," and moved the phone down to her collarbone.
"The heat's on," she said out the window, and then pulled it shut. Turning away quickly, she glanced back before she left the room, as if expecting him to challenge her. He didn't. The last thing he wanted was an argument. He looked at her with a vague curiosity, as if just noticing how bad it had gotten. He turned away and took a drag.
"Damn," he said.
He raised his head and looked at the trees, already nearly black against the western sky. Behind him he could still hear the music through the glass, just enough to recognize the song. Between drags he mouthed the words to himself, a little act of defiance.
"If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break." He repeated the line and smiled, mocking himself, then flicked his spent butt into the grass.
The music grew quieter still, and he turned round to see her in the kitchen doorway, her back to him, one hand still holding the phone, the other aiming the remote at the stereo. Really looking for a brawl tonight, he thought. She kept pressing the remote until the music disappeared completely, swallowed up by the beige candle-world. Her back was still to the window and Lou stared past her to the cow on the mantle, still fishing, still catching nothing.
"To hell with it," he said and opened the kitchen door. His wife stiffened as he came in, but Lou didn't look at her. He whistled for the dog, who came clattering across the linoleum. He fished a plastic bag out from under the sink and put the dog's leash on. His wife was still talking to the phone, her back only half turned now. He said nothing to her as he left.
Heading up the street, he unleashed the dog to let him run ahead. In the fading light the rows of houses seemed especially dumpy, and Lou found his usual solace in the neighborhood's uncompromised shabbiness. The artless strings of Christmas lights, the figurines crouching among the bushes and red-dyed mulch: even the street's attempts at decoration added to the atmosphere of working class decay. At least it's sincere, he thought.
At the first corner he found his dog squatting on Tafuri's lawn. It was larger than the other yards, conspicuously tidy – the one Chem lawn on the street. Lou groaned.
"You love to crap where I gotta clean it up, don't you, Eddie?"
The dog finished up while Lou waited, his eyes fixed on the little yellow pesticide notice stuck near the mailbox. Eddie ran off and for a moment Lou considered taking the sign and sticking it into the steaming mess. Instead he put his hand into the plastic bag and scooped the pile up, then followed after Eddie, dangling the warm bag. He never looked up at the house, but he was sure Tafuri was watching.
"Oh man," he said as he neared the second corner and saw the cars lined up in the street. Eight were waiting already, engines running, a mixture of minivans and SUVs, all facing the entrance to the park, where half a dozen attendants in orange safety vests ate donuts and waited for nightfall. Above them a huge sign announced the event: the Fantasy of Lights, the yearly holiday light show, when people ventured from the suburbs to the city's trashy beach to see a couple dozen scenes made from colored light bulbs. From Thanksgiving to New Year's they came to see it, scores of them, hundreds on weekend nights. Even Lou's coworkers at the office came every year, with their wives and kids who would be ashamed to be seen at the city beach any other day of the year.
Lou glanced at the sky; he guessed he had fifteen minutes before dark. He called for Eddie and put him on the leash. Then he slipped past the entrance gate, pretending not to see the attendants staring at him.
"Excuse me, sir."
Lou didn't answer.
"The Fantasy's going to be starting soon."
"Okay," Lou said, still walking.
"You can't be in there when we let the cars through."
"I got time," Lou said, well past the man now. After a few yards he stopped and let Eddie off the leash again.
The electric scenes were already glowing along the park road. A snowman and snowwoman, skiing. A teddy bear opening gift boxes. Santa driving a monster truck. The speakers around the park clicked, then began the night's looping medley of holiday instrumentals. Lou lit a cigarette, but it didn't console him. All he had left, besides Zeppelin, were these walks: the grubby neighborhood, the half-wild dog, the leafless trees dark against the sky. If life said anything anymore, it said that and only that – nothing else was sincere. But for more than a month, more than a twelfth of the year, the beige candle-world came out with its vacant electric smiles, its blaring carols, its signs announcing every scene's sponsor, the whole revolting parade of insincerity sprawled across his honest, dingy park. It was like a huge ad stamped across the world, selling a life that, despite his constant refusals, had all but swallowed him whole. There was little satisfaction in flouting the rules, in scorning the righteous attendants, but for the next month he'd have to live on these moments of stupid defiance.
The dog knew the way and Lou followed after him, past the elves on jet skis, past the Santa playing golf, past the snowmen eating ice cream cones and the reindeer in a tux. He was passing under the candy cane arch when he heard a loud engine roar into motion. In a parking lot to his left, he saw one of the city's leaf box trucks, parked behind a massive leaf pile. Three men were hurriedly raking leaves into the dark mouth of the vacuum tube, while their boss stood by them smoking, his foot on the truck's fender. He glanced toward Lou and the two of them exchanged a cautious nod.
Lou went on following Eddie, past the caroling elves and the American flag, finally to the last scene: Mr. and Mrs. Claus standing with the power company's lightbulb-head mascot, all waving their goodbyes. Just past the scene was another leaf pile by the roadside, awaiting the vacuum. Eddie had taken an interest in it, his head half-buried in the leaves and his tail wagging lazily. Mixed with the leaves was the beach's human refuse: plastic bags, cigarette cartons, beer cans, styrofoam. At the edge of the pile, still half stuck to the pavement, was a condom, oddly luminous in the glow of the grinning Clauses. Lou smirked: what a perfect complement to the waving light bulb arms, the bawling muzak – this bit of insincerity flung from a car window. He'd seen them bring the prostitutes down here. He could picture their self-satisfied faces, cruising down to the water in their Lincolns and Cherokees, carting along a hired lover. Had that man in the Lincoln even known that a woman was there at all while he acted out his pathetic fantasy? He may as well have been alone, with his latex-coated sex, his laminate soul. Here was the fruit of his escapade, its loathsome by-product discarded on the street in its little trash bag, like Eddie's mess in the sack dangling from Lou's hand. Lou tossed the bag into the leaves, to be sucked away with the rest into the oblivion of the leaf-vac.
"C'mon, Eddie," he said, clipping on the leash before they headed out the park gate.
Thirty or forty cars were now lined up at the entrance, and the attendants checked their watches and looked anxiously toward the leaf truck, which had moved down to the second pile. Behind him Lou heard the vacuum throttle up again, and he knew the pile was disappearing. He passed the line of cars and turned down a side street as the vacuum quit and the gates were opened.
"Hold on, Eddie," he said with irritation, tugging on the dog to unclip him again.
The shabbiness of the side street usually came as a relief, but Lou hardly felt it tonight. The crumbling sidewalk, the persistent smell of garbage, the brown and battered chain link fences – all the drabness he liked to spit at the beige world seemed to stick in his throat tonight. The rebuke, normally so satisfying – what choice did it actually leave him with? The happy families in the SUVs at the light show, or the bits of trash blowing on the oil-stained road. The stray-haunted shadows or the Santa waving its negation of the night – there was nothing else, no life or comfort between them.
"Just a junky version of the suburbs," he said. "They'd all move out if they could."
He came to the corner of his own street, and paused at a house with a crèche scene on its ratty lawn. Eddie sniffed and wetted the mailbox post before jogging on, but Lou stopped to regard the hollow plastic figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling beside the empty crib. They glowed, pink in the faces, blue and yellow in their cloaks – the same garish colors of the Fantasy elves, the same electric refusal of the night. But here at least there were no idiot smiles; even in molded plastic their faces were strange and solemn – utterly serious, utterly intent, as the elves and the people who came to see the elves could never be. Their eyes were fixed on the crib, empty and unlit, an obscure place between them like the silent emptiness the world tried to drive out. Lou followed their stares to the dark crib, the pregnant void between them. He wanted to see it always – but could he ever see there what they saw? Could he ever find a kind of Kashmir there, throbbing in the darkness? Could he ever hear what life was saying to them?
Lou had stopped long enough to confuse Eddie, who came trotting back to frolic around him and nudge at his hands. He allowed the dog to lead him away, and followed him past the last half-dozen houses before coming to his own. Eddie ran up the driveway immediately, but Lou stood in front to regard the house, with its aluminum siding, its concrete steps adorned with his wife's pots of mums, its big rectangular window radiating the beige room's halogen light. He came up the front lawn until he could see his wife inside. She was sitting on the couch with the TV on, but she wasn't watching it. Lou, from the darkness of the lawn, was close enough to see her eyes, fixed distractedly on the bookshelf. He noticed the wrinkles that had started to form around her eyes, the deepening lines in her forehead, the dark roots of her hair showing along her part. She was gnawing on her left thumb – a nervous habit she had learned in high school to spare her nails. Her expression was so unfamiliar to Lou that he felt as if he had never seen her before. A lonely, bewildered woman. An unhappy woman. His eyes drifted down to notice her right hand held against her abdomen. He felt the uneasiness of it; the hand wasn't resting – it was questioning, trying to soothe. Lou's heart began to beat more quickly, but he didn't move. He stayed there on the lawn for another five minutes, watching her through the glass as the sounds of the world seemed to recede and sharpen. He could hear everything clearly: the highway, the television muttering, the Fantasy's distant muzak, and beneath all of it a silence that nothing could contradict.
Tired of waiting, Eddie scratched at the back door. Lou saw how the noise startled her, how her face changed as she recognized that her husband was home. Instantly it seemed to harden; by the time she stood to go the door, she looked like the woman Lou saw everyday, ready to meet the man who so disappointed and tormented her. He turned and almost ran to the back door.
He came in abruptly and saw her kneeling beside the dog, wiping his paws with paper towels.
"Eddie, hold still. Somebody's got to get you clean."
Noticing that he hadn't walked by her, she glanced up, and seeing the intentness in his face, rose to her feet. He didn't look away; they stared, eye to eye, the hardness of their faces melting away even as the fear in them grew.
He gestured toward her abdomen. "Are you…"
Terror flooded into her eyes. She nodded and started to cry.
"How?" he said. "I thought…" Her face darkened. She started sobbing, and Lou was overwhelmed by shame and by an unaccountable longing.
"It doesn't matter," he said. He reached out and took her into his arms, speaking softly in her ear as the sobs convulsed her body. A week later, a day later, he'd be shocked by the things he'd said. He'd be nauseated by thoughts of minivans and plastic toys, and he'd disappear from her into his habitual gloom. This revelation would soon appear as just another ploy of the world he hated, a final decisive trick to bring him under its sway. But for a moment it seemed like something else, something outside the possibilities of false light and the comfort of a sneering darkness. For that moment he was aware only of the closeness of something real, unutterably and frighteningly real between them, as if the dark spot on the lawn, the terrible silence at the heart of everything, was present somewhere in his wife's body. In that moment he heard his voice speaking and believed what it said, even the quiet benediction whispered in her ear as she wept.
"It's all right, Katie. It's good."