Fiction

Housebreaking

Sarah Frisch

Nothing is lost, and all is won, by a right estimate of what is real.

     —Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures

 

Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.

Earlier that afternoon Seamus had been weeding by the driveway, and she’d stopped to ask him if the cottage in the backyard was available to rent. It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack Charity had been carrying and that she confessed she’d planned on drinking alone.

She wore cutoffs and a backpack—a faded green thing cinched around her waist. She had yellow hair, dark eyes, and a broad, easy smile that made it seem as if she would be perfectly comfortable anywhere but was especially pleased to find herself there, with him. He wasn’t a drinker, but in her presence he drank one beer and then another. By the third beer, he both wanted her desperately and suspected that no good could come of it—that to hunger for what you could touch was to invite disaster.

Charity lived in Arlington, with her ex-boyfriend and his aging mother. They’d been together ten years, she said, and the breakup was a rough one. She was trying to find a place as far away from them as possible but still on the Metro. “I just need to be out of that house,” she said, offering Seamus the last beer.

He said he was already drunk.

“You’re pretty tall for that,” she said. “You must not drink a lot.”

“I used to be a Christian Scientist.” He regretted the words as soon they were out of his mouth. People mixed Christian Science up with Scientology, or said things like, Is that the religion where you don’t believe in doctors?—as if he had refused to acknowledge doctors’ very existence.

Charity said that she’d had a Christian Science friend in high school; the religion had always reminded her of Buddhism. Buddhism had always reminded Seamus of Christian Science, and he said so. “Only Christian Science is unrelentingly positive. The world’s a harmonious place.”

“I imagine that’s a hard view to maintain,” Charity said, “once you start looking around.”

Yes, he said, it was.

Even after Seamus stopped taking care of his house, he had kept up the exterior for his tenants. Now, in the late-afternoon light, he could see how pretty the backyard looked: the little brick pathway that led to the blue and white cottage tucked back among the trees, beyond that the woods, shimmering green and gold in the late-afternoon sun.

“My ex’s house has the gravitational pull of a black hole,” Charity said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”

“Congratulations,” Seamus said. Then he asked her to stay for dinner.

For months Seamus’s friends had been telling him he was depressed, and as soon as he stepped into his kitchen he saw what they meant: shades drawn, empty takeout boxes piled in the trash, the refrigerator looming in the dim light like a grimy white thumb. A year ago, he used to cook every night, but now all he could find was a package of ground beef rotting in the crisper and a can of pumpkin sitting inexplicably on the bottom shelf. In the freezer he located a month-old chicken and a stick of butter that he had bought one afternoon in a bout of hopefulness so brief that it had passed by the time he got home.

He defrosted the chicken in the microwave, sliced butter and stuffed it under the skin, and slid the whole thing into the oven to roast. When he turned around, Charity was standing so close behind him that he almost jumped. She had on her backpack. “I should leave.”

“Don’t.”

“I’m kind of a mess right now. You don’t need that.”

“Don’t tell me what I need,” he said, surprised by how forceful he sounded. She looked surprised, too, but when he reached out and pulled her toward him, she grinned.

He almost cried when he saw her body. He was dizzy with longing and something that felt like fear. Afterward they lay in the dimming light of the room, her arm across his chest, her breathing slowing until he thought she was asleep. It occurred to him that for all those years when he’d believed there was no life in matter, he’d never had to contend with something that felt this good.

They lay in silence until her phone rang. She dug it out of her cutoffs and silenced it. “I don’t want to go back to that hellhole,” she said.

“Stay here till you find a place,” Seamus heard himself say.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked embarrassed, as if he had accused her of something.

“Everybody needs help.”

“It seems like a bad idea,” she said, quietly.

Seamus said he was trying to be more open to bad ideas.

When she accepted, it was with such obvious relief that he wished he’d offered the instant they’d met. Soon the smell of roast chicken filled the house, and they got dressed and returned to the kitchen, where they tore apart the bird and finished off the last of the beer, piling the bottles, sweaty with chicken fat, into the recycling.

On the couch after dinner, they talked about real estate. Seamus said he wasn’t comfortable being a landlord because he didn’t like living off somebody else’s work. His tenants—Irene and Claudia, a lawyer and her ten-year-old daughter—were rarely at home, and he hated charging a single mom to rent a place she didn’t use. He said that his mother was helping with the rest of the mortgage while he looked for work, and he’d begun to dread their weekly phone conversations because he found it so hard to admit, yet again, that he hadn’t found a job. His mother would tell him what she always did: he was secure in the arms of unconditional Love; the Lord would provide. When her checks arrived in the mail, he put them immediately into envelopes so he didn’t have to stare at the numbers, or her signature, or the Bible verses she always wrote in the memo lines.

His mother was a third grade teacher, and he knew that the money was most likely coming from her new husband, a Republican who owned rental property all over Honolulu. He didn’t tell Charity about the husband.

“It’s been humbling taking money from other people,” he said.

Charity said she thought it was nice that he could admit that—that there was a time when Greg and his mother had provided for her, and she’d also found it humbling, especially because she’d been on her own for a few years by then.

She had her bare feet up on the coffee table. There was a streak of dirt on her calf that he hadn’t noticed in bed. She told him she’d grown up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her mother had died when she was twelve. She’d gone to live with an aunt, then at fifteen moved to D. C., where she’d lived with her father for six months before he’d gotten a job as a construction worker overseas. A year later she met Greg at the restaurant where she waited tables. He was twenty-four at the time and had initially acted as both a boyfriend and mentor. He’d encouraged her to move in with him and his mother, pushed her to quit her job, to finish high school and then college. They became her replacement family, she said. Sometimes they still made her feel like a child. “It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I realized how overbearing he was. He was furious when I decided to go to business school, and even madder when I took the job in public relations.”

“You work in PR?”

“It’s an exclusive firm. We only take clients who can demonstrate a total absence of social conscience.”

“That’s not what I expected,” he said, suddenly awkward. “I imagined you were a teacher or an artist.”

“You’re looking at Weekend Charity. Wait till you see me in a suit.”

He asked why she’d chosen to work with her company, and she shrugged and said that she’d mostly taken the job to piss off Greg. “We do PR for the Chamber of Commerce, the biggest lobbying group against climate-change legislation. He can’t stand that.”

“He’s an environmentalist?”

“He calls himself ‘pro–Earth life.’ He says either you’re for humans living on the planet or you’re against it.”

She crossed her feet. Outside the sky was dark, a single light on in the cottage.

“Half our clients are scrapping the planet for parts,” she said.

“That’s terrible.”

“But the people aren’t all bad, and I enjoy a lot of the work. Plus it’s not like there’s anything else out there.”

“Tell me about it,” Seamus said.

Charity said she’d turned down only one project. Her boss had asked her to write a press release for Halliburton after the news broke that a group of its employees gang-raped a coworker and locked her in a shipping crate. “I said no way, and they gave it to another woman. Now she’s a VP. She’s so smug about it I could punch her in the face.”

That night they slept together in his bed, the window cracked open, the smell of the woods carried in on the wind: dampness and new growth, the early spring. Seamus drifted off with Charity’s head on his shoulder and woke sometime before dawn to find her sleeping heavily on her stomach, her arms out and back bare and pale in the gray light, the white sheet twisted around her waist as if she’d lashed herself to the bed.

 



His last job had been in the tech department at a human-rights nonprofit in D. C. He was still a practicing Christian Scientist at the time, but even then he struggled to understand how so much suffering could exist in a world governed by a set of harmonious natural laws. He tried not to dwell on the stories his coworkers told, but sometimes he’d come home too upset to even pray. He would feel better only after going to church, or on the rare occasions his girlfriend convinced him to attend a Wednesday testimony meeting.

He’d been with the organization for a couple of years when his boss asked if he would go on a trip to Pakistan to document civilian deaths from U. S. drone attacks. The videographer had come down with shingles. Seamus had always assumed his first trip out of the country would be somewhere in Europe—visiting castles, staying in hostels, sleeping on trains. “I have some experience in video,” he said.

“I don’t know how much you’ll be able to film,” his boss said. “But given the area we think it’s probably a good idea to have a man along.”

Three days later Seamus found himself sitting in a row of blue vinyl airport seats on a layover in Doha, Qatar, a city he’d never heard of in a country he’d never heard of, his Bible and Science and Health stashed in his carry-on along with the Islamabad travel guide.

The woman he was traveling with was in her midfifties, with silver hair cut bluntly at the jaw, so straight it could have been ironed. Her name was Melinda. She had pale green eyes, translucent and eerily unyielding, the backs of them like the marbled walls of an antique swimming pool. She was a mother of three.

“They’re around your age,” she said. “My eldest is a lawyer. My middle son is a writer.”

“It must be nice to have brothers.”

“They’re good support for each other.”

He asked what her youngest son did.

“He’s dead. He was murdered when he was fifteen.”

“I’m sorry.”

Melinda nodded, looking away.

A friend of Seamus’s mother’s had a three-year-old daughter who drowned in a river at a family reunion. Seamus remembered the woman weeping at their kitchen table, saying that losing your child was like being sliced and gutted, then made to walk around as if you were whole. His mother had taken the woman in her arms, but even then (he was only ten) he could see she didn’t quite know what to do. He had watched the woman weep, wondering why his mother didn’t say the things she always said when he cried: God was Love, they were all safe in His loving arms.

Melinda had bent down and was rummaging around in her carry-on. She pulled out what he thought would be a photo but turned out to be a map of Pakistan.

“This is where we’re going,” she said, running her finger along a region labeled Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “Did you do the reading?”

“I did,” he said. She looked pleased and a little surprised, so he felt compelled to give her a full report. He told her how un-American the whole thing seemed: an intelligence agency killing hundreds of civilians in a non-combat zone of a country that was supposed to be an ally; the CIA director denying the existence of the program; the “double tap” policy of firing two missiles in the same spot, the second strike carefully timed to incinerate first responders—health-care workers, neighbors searching for children in their beds. Even the malicious and weirdly boyish names of the aircraft themselves—Predator and Reaper drones, the Hellfire missiles they carried—had unnerved him, as if the government could barely contain its glee at the prospect of murdering people by joystick.

“Seems pretty American to me,” she said. “But I suppose you know that.”

“There’s knowing and there’s knowing.”

“That’s why we’re hoping for video.”

Seamus made a point from one of the readings, that the civilian deaths and constant terror caused by hovering drones must be working against U. S. interests in the region.

“I hate that argument,” Melinda said. “People have a right to life outside our political agenda.”

He knew she was right. They passed the rest of the layover in silence.

 

In Islamabad they spent a few days getting ready. The sprawling flatness of the city surprised Seamus: its broad parkways and trees planted in rows, the scattering of high-rises downtown, like enormous outdated computer chips turned on their ends. Parts of the city seemed like shabbier and sweatier versions of Denver. He couldn’t help feeling disappointed. On the streets people stared.

“They don’t see a lot of Westerners?” he asked Melinda.

She laughed—the first time he’d heard her laugh. “Not a lot of guys your size around here.”

She’d been crammed into an airplane seat next to him, but the idea of her thinking about his size felt oddly like a violation.

Melinda had arranged for them to travel illegally, with two Pakistani human-rights workers as their guides. On the second day Seamus and Melinda met the men in the hotel lobby. They were younger than Seamus expected, in their late twenties. They clearly considered Seamus the leader of the trip and directed most of their conversation to him, even after he announced that Melinda was in charge. Melinda seemed unsurprised by this state of affairs. She watched quietly as they spoke. Every now and then she asked a question that never would have occurred to Seamus. (Will we be allowed to film? Not always. How can we interview women if our translator is a man? You can’t.)

The men dispensed a lot of advice: Say you’re British, not American; Don’t play the radio in the car; If you see a woman, turn your eyes away, and whatever you do, never touch a woman, not even to shake hands; The same man who is your enemy and intends to redress a wrong by shooting you dead is honor-bound to protect you when you set foot in his home, even at risk of harm to his family.

One of the men began explaining how to handle expensive camera equipment in such an impoverished area, and then stopped, saying to Seamus, “But you must be experienced filming in these kind of conditions.” Seamus couldn’t bring himself to correct him.

Later Melinda and Seamus went shopping for supplies at Jinnah Super—a two-story, open-air structure with rows of tiny stores—then stopped for a burger and fries at a food stall. While they ate, Melinda told him about women’s rights in the tribal areas: honor killings, men throwing acid on young girls’ faces whom they suspected of learning to read.

She had once documented an honor killing in Jordan involving a young woman whose aunts had escorted her into an open field so her little brother could shoot her in the back of the head. “The family seemed quite proud,” she said.

Seamus imagined the aunts walking one on either side of the girl, stepping silently away as the boy appeared from behind.

Melinda finished off her burger and started on the fries. “It’s hard to separate it all out. I’ll have to remind myself we’re there for the drones.”

Seamus’s left foot had been itching since he got off the plane, and now it ached. He leaned over and removed his hiking boot. A small red recess the size of a dime had appeared on the arch of his foot. He pressed it with his thumb, and pain rippled up his ankle.

“What’s that?” Melinda asked, her green eyes on his face.

“I don’t know.”

 

“It’s probably the boot.”

Seamus recognized in her voice a judicial finality. Exonerated: the country, the city, the climate. At fault: Seamus—for having worn hiking boots to a city that (as she had said twice since they arrived) was one of the most cosmopolitan in South Asia.

Neither of them mentioned the foot again, and the rest of the day he limped along behind her, trying to ignore the pain. Back in the hotel room that evening, he stripped off his sock and found the infection had eaten away at his flesh; the hole in his arch was hot and red and almost twice the size it had been earlier that afternoon.

He got out his books and opened Science and Health to one of his favorite quotes—“Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.” He had once believed that the material world was a dream, his own sensations and experiences shadow puppets on a curtain: projections of that infinite unknowable space where all broken things were in fact whole, where the world existed as it always had and always would, in love and infinite unity. Back then he could live in the dream, even enjoy the dream, but he knew that what he saw was not real, and he should work to recognize the harmony and perfection of all things. When he was sick or injured he prayed to know that he was healthy and whole, and then sooner or later he would become healthy and whole again.

He put down the book and lay back, closing his eyes. The pain in his foot was hot and frightening—a much bigger pain than he would have expected from a small crevice of inflamed skin. It disoriented him, as did the tiny, dank hotel room, and the knowledge that he was halfway across the world from home, his only companion a woman he hardly knew. He thought if he took a painkiller he might be able to pray without distraction, but he didn’t have one and didn’t want to bother Melinda. He turned out the light and lay a long time staring into the shadows. Soon the day’s final call to prayer sounded over the tinny loudspeaker. While thousands of people washed their faces and forearms and feet and pulled out their mats, Seamus closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

The next morning he couldn’t stand on his foot.

Later he wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t agreed to let Melinda take him to the doctor. Maybe he would have been able to heal himself through prayer, as he’d been able to a number of times before, or maybe the foot would have gotten worse and he would have flown back home—back to his job and girlfriend and state of mild but workable confusion about the nature of the world and his place in it. Instead he found himself standing outside a large house, near the foothills on the edge of the city.

The doctor was a friend of Melinda’s, a middle-aged Dutch expat. “You’re a lucky man,” he told Seamus. “I know people who’d pay good money to travel with this lady.”

They followed him upstairs, past a servant on the landing, and entered a room that reminded Seamus of an ad in a magazine—a study with a leather couch, French doors, a balcony that looked out over a sparkling pool, and beyond that, the green rolling hills north of the city. The doctor sat Seamus down on the couch and gently lifted his bare foot into his lap, walking a pair of plump dry fingers along the arch.

“Is it infected?”

“No. Just the worst case of athlete’s foot I’ve ever seen.”

Melinda stood looking out over the balcony, her shoulders squared and prosaic beside the French doors. Seamus examined her back for signs of laughter. “A topical cream and an oral antifungal should take care of it,” the doctor said.

Afterward, a servant brought them tea around a small table, and the doctor and Melinda talked about their years working at an NGO together in Bangladesh. Eventually Melinda said, “We better get to the pharmacy before it closes.”

Seamus had taken medication only once—antibiotics when he was a child, which he took for a chest cough that turned out to be pneumonia—and only after his mother realized that her overwhelming fear had prevented the infection from healing. Now, back in the tiny hotel room, he took out his texts and copied down a couple of his favorite lines:

God changeth not and causeth no evil, disease, nor death;
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.

The air conditioner sputtered beside him, pumping damp air into the room. He could hear the TV in Melinda’s room next door and a bus idling heavily in the street below. He stared at the words on the page. Then he took the medicine. By the time he woke up the next morning his foot had already started to heal.

 

Sunday morning Seamus woke to find Charity sitting on the edge of the bed. “I’m running over to Virginia to pick up some work clothes,” she said. “I’ll be back this afternoon—unless Greg chains me to a radiator.”

Seamus asked if she’d like him to go with her, and she shook her head. She was joking; she really wasn’t worried. Greg was like a child; she could always stick him in a time-out if he got out of hand. As soon as she was gone, it occurred to Seamus that she might be making her escape, and he had no way to reach her; he didn’t even know her last name. Still he went about his day as if he’d be seeing her in a few hours. He spent most of the morning cleaning the house, and in the afternoon he shopped for groceries, buying meat and vegetables and vodka and tonic because Charity had mentioned it was her drink—feeling sheepish and giddy at the checkout as he watched the bottles shuttle down the belt to the register.

Charity arrived at six, wearing an old sweatshirt of his that he hadn’t realized she’d taken. She was carrying a large duffle.

“You’re back,” he said. He must have sounded surprised because she laughed. “It looks great in here.”

He put the steaks on the grill out back and came in to start on the salad. She made them both drinks and leaned on the counter, watching while he worked.

“You’re a bear of a man,” she said. “Do you love women?”

He’d been drinking too fast and he was sweating. He said he was raised to love everybody.

“Good. Because from what I can tell when a guy says he loves women, he just means he likes cunnilingus and feeling in control.”

“Sheesh,” he said, embarrassed for them both.

They stayed talking at the table long after dinner. Seamus asked about her ex-boyfriend, trying to keep his tone casual.

“It just took me a while to realize our relationship was dead,” she said, “and even longer to move out. He’s not an easy person. He manages a Verizon store, but he makes his real money breaking into houses. He doesn’t believe in government or owning things. He says the laws are designed by people with power to protect their power. We used to fight about it. Where I come from people work hard for their shit and you’re supposed to respect that. I told him stealing stuff out of a house was a violation of a person’s intimate space. By then I was getting my MBA, and he said he was offended that me and my vagina were so overly privileged that we were equating taking people’s property with rape.” She frowned. “As if I had said that—as if not being raped is a fucking privilege.”

Seamus, not knowing what to say, made them each another drink.

“In the end I managed to find a place, but on the day before I was going to sign the lease his mother broke her hip. Greg’s gone a lot at night and the old lady couldn’t stay home alone—and he begged me to stay around and help. So I did. I waited on her hand and foot. Then a week ago I came home early from work and caught her downstairs with her potter’s wheel strapped to a dolly, dragging it across the living room.” She quickly added, “It was a portable potter’s wheel. God knows how she got it on the dolly. Even the portable ones weigh like fifty pounds.”

“With her broken hip?”

“They faked it to keep me there. I’m telling you, that house is unhealthy.”

Seamus got drunker and drunker as the evening progressed. Charity was drinking, too, but showed no signs besides two patches of pink that appeared on her cheekbones. It was as if she belonged to some other, more resilient species. At midnight he tried to do the dishes. Charity sat on the floor by the stove, hugging her knees to her chest. “Why’d the woman cross the road?” she said.

“Why?” Seamus was having trouble understanding where his wrists ended and his hands began.

“The road? Who let that bitch out of the shipping crate?”

“That’s a hideous joke,” he said, and she said, yes, it was. Then she said, “You know what Greg told me this morning when I went to get my clothes? He said he’d shoot himself if I left. My mom shot herself. He knows that.”

 

The Seamus who couldn’t find his hands found his anger. He came over and squatted beside her. “That asshole,” he said, pulling her into his arms, her hair against his face, filled with desire and sadness and the smell of liquor on her, his body no longer struggling against his mind but taking orders from somewhere deep inside.

“It’s not about me. I can see that now,” she said. “All these years and I was just a foot soldier in his crusade against the world.”

 

After four days in Islamabad, Melinda, Seamus, and the human-rights workers piled into a car and went west, stopping near Peshawar to buy a burqa from a kiosk by the side of the road, and again to pick up their translator, a talkative man in a leather jacket who was soon telling them about how he would have been a doctor if the money wasn’t so good in translating. The five of them spent the next couple of weeks together, traveling around the high, dusty mountains in Waziristan, staying with the families and friends of the guides, learning about the damage done by American drones and the Pakistani military. Seamus had imagined he would be out in the streets, filming strangers while they answered Melinda’s questions, but now he saw how impossible that would have been. People stayed out of the streets because of the drones, and every time Seamus’s party left one house it was to travel to another. The houses themselves were like fortresses, with high walls and towers lined with tiny square windows for rifles. Everywhere they went Seamus was treated as Melinda’s superior. During one conversation, their host, a local chief and uncle to one of the guides, dispatched Melinda to the women’s quarters to be entertained by his wife. But for the most part, men listened politely while Melinda’s questions were translated, then turned to Seamus to give their answers. Seamus sometimes glanced at Melinda for a reaction, but she always looked attentively phlegmatic, giving nothing away.

Melinda wore a head scarf inside the homes, but on the road she was in full burqa, which seemed to make her more silent than usual, so that Seamus sometimes felt as if he were riding beside a bird in a cage that somebody had thrown a sheet over. He was relieved not to have to watch her watching him while he chatted with the other men, but he was also ashamed of that relief. He was always grateful to escape when the car stopped—to be away from her silence and the blue mesh of her veil, to stretch his cramped legs and spit the dust from his mouth. The men would go off in search of directions or food—one of them always staying behind, leaning against the car with the rifle while he talked to Seamus—but Melinda rarely left the back seat, a blue tent of a figure that could have been anyone.

They saw their first casualties in Miranshah, where the group toured a hospital room packed tight with cots of wounded men and children. Seamus had been given permission to film, and he walked around the room with the camera, grateful because he couldn’t imagine what else to do with his hands and eyes. He filmed a man who had watched his wife die with their child in her arms, another who had lost both legs. He filmed child after child, covered in bandages, unconscious in their cots or staring into his camera with wide impassive eyes.

Afterward they found a man who identified himself as a Pashtun freedom fighter and agreed to be filmed if he could wear a scarf over his face. The translator stood at Seamus’s elbow, speaking into the camera: “They murder us down to the youngest child. If they see Pashtun in a Toyota car they call them Taliban or spy. They call airstrikes onto the vehicle with innocent people in it.” By “they” he meant the American and Punjabi devils.

Seamus felt the first twinges of a headache right after they had left the hospital, and it built throughout the afternoon. By evening it was jackhammering at his left eye, and his stomach rolled in his gut. Back at the house where they were staying, he threw up in a bucket and lay down on his mattress. He tried to say a few words of prayer but couldn’t make sense of them, as if he were reciting a song in a language he had forgotten. He drifted off into a half-sleep and dreamt briefly that he was in the hollowed-out bone of a dead thing, where a shape he couldn’t identify moved in the shadows. He had a word to describe the shape, but even dreaming he didn’t know what the word meant, and when he awoke it was gone. The human-rights workers were sitting on the bed next to his, speaking in Pashto. Soon they got up and left. He dozed off again. The next time he woke up, he found Melinda sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a glass of water.

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he said.

She shrugged. “I thought maybe you hadn’t been drinking enough,” she said coolly. “It could be altitude sickness.”

He sat up and took the glass from her. “Thanks. I’ll be okay.”

She was watching him, and he could tell something was bothering her. After what felt like three full minutes of silence she asked, “Did you notice how few women were in that hospital today?” He nodded. “I asked one of the guides about it. He said it was becoming difficult to find female doctors to work in the region, and many female patients didn’t come in because it was shameful for them to be touched by male doctors. He used that word,” she said. “Shameful.”

“But what if they’re dying?”

“Seamus, have you ever thought about why two guys with Kalashnikovs offered to show us around Waziristan?”

“Are you saying they’re not human-rights workers?”

“I’m not sure it’s that simple.”

The ever-present film of dust was thicker now, coating his teeth and tongue. “If we can’t really know,” he said, “then what’s all this for?”

She stared at him, her expression unreadable. “You seem really shook up.”

His ears burned, and he put the glass to his mouth and drank.

 

On their last day they visited a town where they had heard there’d been a number of civilian casualties. They were spending the afternoon with a family—cousins of one of the guides—and to avoid attracting attention to their visit, they parked the car a ways from the house. The day was cold, the sky a wide, hollow blue over snow-covered peaks, the streets empty except for a couple of men with rifles who turned their faces away as soon as Melinda came into sight. Seamus shivered under his heavy fleece. The translator pointed to the sky where two black dots hovered a few miles off.

“Smile,” Melinda said. “Some guy in Nevada’s deciding whether or not to blow your face off.”

Soon they had turned a corner, but they could still see the drones and hear the humming.

“That’s a sinister sound,” he said.

Melinda said he might as well get used to it: “Anything you can to do somebody can be done to you.”

The interview was with a father and son who gave Seamus permission to film the conversation. Melinda sipped tea, awkwardly holding the veil up with one hand. Every once in a while she interjected with a question, but mostly the men talked. Behind the video camera Seamus felt useful and strangely detached. A small group of kids gathered at his knees to stare at the machine, scattering when he moved and reconfiguring a few feet away, like minnows at low tide. At some point the men sent the children out and began talking about the latest attacks: a drone had killed ten people at a market, and then dozens more of the victims’ relatives, neighbors, and friends later that same day at the funeral. They had lost two adult family members, including an uncle who was a tribal elder and supported the family, and three children. Seventy-three people were killed in all, twelve of them children. Their neighbor’s wife had her nose blown right off her face.

When the interview was over, Melinda came over to Seamus and leaned in so close that he could feel her breath on his neck. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said. He looked down at her drawn face and, in a brief flash of vindication, thought, I’m not the only one who’s shook up. But then he remembered her murdered son, remembered his mother’s friend with the drowned child, and was ashamed.

On the way back to the car, the street was deserted, the wind kicking up dust around them. The guides and translator trailed behind; they seemed to be arguing about something. Melinda walked beside him in full burqa.

“Isn’t it odd?” he said. “I mean, if a drone can read a license plate on a car from miles away, how did somebody make the mistake of hitting a funeral full of civilians?”

“Who said it was a mistake?” said Melinda sharply. Then she broke into a jog, lifting the burqa to her knees, exposing her khakis and tennis shoes. Seamus began to run also and in a second he was behind her. Together they jogged through the empty street, past the mud houses shuttered against the world. They were almost at the car when they came around a corner and found a small boy standing in the middle of the street, weeping. At his feet lay the body of a man facedown in the dirt; the back of his shirt was soaked in blood.

The interpreter appeared behind them and politely, as if he were directing them to watch for a step, said, “Please run.”

“Get video,” Melinda shouted, reaching over and slapping Seamus’s hand, a hard, stinging slap—later he would think her hand must have slipped. He pulled the camera from his fleece and pressed record, but the guides had rounded the corner behind them and were pressing them forward with the heft of a small crowd, saying, “Hurry now, it’s not safe here.” Soon Seamus was running again, the camera in his hand, his breath and footsteps in his ears.

Back in D.C. he watched the footage and discovered the camera hadn’t recorded sound. The boy appeared briefly onscreen—a silent flash of his figure, a small face broken with grief—followed by bumping brown hillsides, ground and sky, the high, white mountains on the horizon. Seamus was at his desk, ignoring an inbox stuffed with e-mails about hard drives and software installation. When the video was over, he went online and watched another video—Pakistani soldiers lining up Pashtun men and shooting them in the chest. On the low-quality video it looked clean, almost choreographed—the men in long shirts, standing with their shoulders touching, then dropping into the high, shifting grass. After that he found that he was done for the day, and when he got home he knew he was done for good—that he’d arrived at a jagged slab of stone at the edge of the world, with no ground ahead. He called his boss and left a message on his voice mail saying he quit.

“I lost my faith over athlete’s foot,” he told his girlfriend. She said he was being reductive and flip and she couldn’t help him if he didn’t tell her the truth. A few months later they broke up. He stopped leaving the house. His friends from church tried to support him, e-mailing him articles from the Sentinel on peace and spiritual thinking, stopping by Sunday mornings to offer him a ride. But after a while they seemed to sense his restlessness with their presence, or grew tired of his refusal to go to church or to share what he was thinking or feeling. He saw less and less of them, his days turning so gray and ill defined he could find no language to describe them.

 

Charity moved in, using his towels, eating his food, riding the Metro into the city to work and in the evenings meeting him out at restaurants and bars, or returning home to the dinner he’d cooked, eating out on the back deck as the evenings grew warmer, the late-evening light fading into the trees. At one point she said she should start looking at apartment listings again, and he said, “Please don’t,” and they decided—quickly and together—that she should live there. She said she could pay something toward his mortgage. He said he wasn’t charging her to sleep in his bed, but in the end she convinced him to let her pay. She wrote the first check on the month anniversary of their meeting and left it on the kitchen counter by the coffee pot. It was four hundred dollars over the amount they’d agreed on, and it embarrassed him so badly he had to leave the house and walk around the block. Back home he found Charity in a deck chair, taking apart the Sunday paper in her lap.

“Your check was too much.”

“I hate money.”

He said he felt emasculated and she said to get over it; he was living off charity now.

“What?”

“I wanted to make the joke before you did.”

“I wasn’t going to make that joke.”

She wrote him a new check for the correct amount.

A few weeks later they drove to Arlington to pick up Charity’s things. It was early evening. The rush-hour traffic was slow through the city and stopped altogether on the bridge. Charity sat in the passenger seat, snapping the door handle as if she might jump out at any moment.

“Stop,” Seamus said.

“Sorry. I’m just not looking forward to dealing with Greg.”

Then, as if saying his name had rattled something loose inside, she starting listing off details about her ex: he didn’t drink milk because it was a quarter pus; at one time he had owned a pet ferret but abandoned it outside animal control because the smell bothered his mother; he talked constantly about climate change and had once woken Charity in the middle of the night to tell her humans were causing the end of the eleven-thousand-year-old environmentally stable Holocene epoch, and that Earth’s climate had already crossed three of the nine thresholds between now and a planet that couldn’t sustain widespread human civilization.

“They’re like the nine rings of hell,” he said, “except interlocking, so that you don’t know when the whole chain will come clattering down.”

She said she didn’t want to discuss climate change right then, and he accused her of reckless “blindering,” which she didn’t think was a word. He said she’d see what he meant in a couple of decades—when the superrich bought up what was left of the inhabitable land while everyone else died of extreme weather, starvation, war, and disease.

She told Seamus how, for her birthday, Greg had driven her to an alley in Georgetown in the night, where he had scaled a fence, opened a gate for her, and led her through a backyard to a fancy old house. She was thinking there must be some kind of surprise party when he kicked down the back door. “I was stunned,” she said. “I just followed him around the house while he bagged things—you know, emptied out the woman’s jewelry box. I was scared we’d get caught and pissed at Greg for putting me in that situation. I kept asking him about the alarm—what if we’d triggered a silent alarm? Later I found out he had a friend at the company.”

“He wanted to scare you?”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t that scared,” she said. “It was weird, I didn’t feel that bad, either. It was this huge, spotless house and it felt good watching him fuck it up. You know they had someone waiting on them, cleaning their house every day, doing their laundry, managing their money, making their food. You know nobody in that house was working the night shift while her seven-year-old put herself to bed. And you know what? Their money’s probably just as dirty as Greg’s. Maybe legal, but dirty. There’s a lot of that in this city. I see it all the time. If you’ve got enough money, you just rig the system so you don’t have to break any laws.”

Seamus said that watching people screw each other to get rich made it hard for him to believe in a loving, all-powerful God. “Either there’s a powerful God who doesn’t love us,” he said, “or a loving God who has no control.”

“Or no God.”

“Right,” said Seamus. “Or that.”

Greg lived in a two-story house with a porch swing and eaves and flowering bushes around the windows. It was not what Seamus had pictured.

“There’s not much to carry,” Charity said. “I put most of my stuff in storage.” Then she asked Seamus to wait in the car. He watched her walk up the front steps, take out a key, and let herself into the house, then he put his seat back and closed his eyes. The night was warm and still, the smell of magnolia drifting through the car window.

“Hey,” somebody said near his left ear. He opened his eyes and found a face a few inches from his own. His first impression was that a puppet had popped up over the edge of the car door, all curly black beard and hair and a round, pale face.

“Are you the guy my wife’s leaving me for?” Greg said. Under all the hair he looked young and slight, his slender wrists resting on the door, crossed like the paws of a cat. “She didn’t tell you? Of course she didn’t tell you.”

“You’re Greg?”

“Welcome to my world,” Greg said. Seamus could smell dinner on his breath, beef and onions. “How tall are you?”

“Six five.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m unemployed.”

Greg snorted. “Go figure. She’s always looking for a big fucking project.”

The screen door banged and Charity came out of the house, a trash bag in each hand. Seamus pushed the car door open, forcing Greg to step back. He walked over to Charity and took the bags from her. “You okay?” he said. She nodded, her face tight. He put the bags in the trunk, trying hard not to feel as if he’d stumbled onto the set of somebody else’s life—somebody else’s marriage.

Greg followed Charity around to her side of the car, but she climbed in, locking the door. Seamus got in, too, and started the car, but Greg ran back around to the driver’s side and stuck his head in the window. “Hold on,” he said, sounding so miserable that Seamus was tempted to turn off the ignition and say, Let’s talk about this. It’s hard but it doesn’t have to be this hard. But Charity had grabbed Seamus and was digging her fingers into his elbow. He put the car in neutral and let it roll. Greg jumped back, and Seamus slid into gear.

They drove in silence until they reached the dark, empty parkway. “I’m sorry about that,” Charity said. “We were common-law. I divorced him a year ago and he knows it.”

“What does divorcing a common-law involve?”

“Nothing,” she said. “We don’t have any shared assets.” Then she started to cry.

 

As the weather grew warmer, they took weekend trips— hiking in the Jefferson National Forest, fishing off a rented canoe in northwestern Maryland—or walked through the woods behind the house, down to the botanical gardens. Sometimes they stopped to watch the kids on the carousel or bought tickets for the miniature train and piled in alongside the families.

During the week, Charity left early and worked late, and Seamus spent much of his day at home alone. He found himself thinking of Greg, replaying their conversation, remembering how young he looked, as if he’d been preserved by some particular rancor that flowed through the veins of people who had always known exactly what to believe and acted accordingly. Seamus was sickened by the idea of Greg and Charity as a couple, although he couldn’t imagine them together at anything but a great distance—a set of small, gray figures on a barren landscape, moving far beyond his reach. When Seamus wasn’t feeling panicked or jealous, he lost hours on the Internet researching topics in which he had only a peripheral interest—the latest version of the firefighter exam or details on becoming a forensic accountant—or watching old sitcoms: Family Ties, Mork & Mindy. Sometimes he got back in bed as soon as Charity left the house and spent the day sleeping, masturbating, and sleeping again, waking midafternoon when the sun hit the bedroom windows, worn out and ashamed. It was a beautiful thing, his life with Charity, but he found he had difficulty believing it was real unless she was right there beside him.

“Stand porter at the door of thought,” his mother said. She meant, Changing your thinking will change your experience of the world. But he couldn’t. His inertia, his unemployment, seemed to leak into everything, and he wondered why Charity hadn’t grow tired of him yet. One evening, walking through the woods behind his house with Charity, he asked, “Am I your project?”

“Why would you say that? Do I act like I’m trying to change you?”

“No, but you haven’t known me that long. What happens when you find out how depressed I am about the world?”

“The world’s a fucked-up place. I can’t imagine being with somebody who wasn’t at least slightly depressed by it.”

“Greg said I was your project.”

She glanced over at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?” No, she said, he wasn’t her project—Greg just thought everyone had sketchy self-interested motives for what they did because that was all he could imagine. “I was Greg’s project,” she said.

There had been a brief thunderstorm earlier, and bits of pink sky showed through the treetops. A catbird clamored through the bushes, calling after them in a high, cranky voice. Seamus took Charity’s hand.

He got worried sometimes, he said, because things seemed so good between them. In Christian Science, romantic love was supposed to bring you to divine love. “Wanting somebody this bad sets you up for trouble. You’re not supposed to believe that anything beside God can make or break your happiness.”

“You’re not a Christian Scientist anymore,” she said, her eyes on the path. She looked a little sad.

He started telling her about his trip to Pakistan, about Melinda and the guides and the hospitals—the kid he saw crying in the road over the body. He said he should have helped him: when you come across something like that, you’re responsible for helping, not because you’re an adult or a human-rights worker or an American, but because you—a sentient creature—happen to be there.

He expected her to say something reassuring, something about how he’d done his best in that moment, but instead she said, “I see what you mean.”

He dropped her hand, picked up a stick, and swung it at a bush. He felt disgusted at himself and childishly angry; but it seemed unfair, almost sadistic, the way situations appeared out of nowhere and demanded your immediate response, then afterward provided no way of changing what you did or didn’t do. “We’re terrorizing families, killing old people and little kids, thousands of civilians. It’s evil.”

“Christian Scientists don’t believe in evil, right?”

He swatted another bush, then examined the end of the stick, where an animal had chewed off the bark. Evil in Christian Science was the absence of good, he said, as darkness is the absence of light.

“My mom shot herself in a dumpster,” Charity said. “Out back of the restaurant she managed. I think she was trying to be considerate, not wanting to leave a mess.” She said, “Everybody’s got that broken-off thing inside them, Seamus. At some point you just learn to live with it.”

 

He bought a portable radio and carried it with him all over the house, then outside to Irene’s cottage, where he was doing repairs. He moved through the details of his tenants’ life—a pair of child’s pajamas with cows and stars, legal briefs in a pile on the kitchen floor—and listened to the news. Soldiers shot people at checkpoints; mudslides devoured towns; rebels and drug traffickers and governments tortured and killed civilians. One morning he heard a scientist talk about climate change and the planet in the decades to come: droughts, hurricanes, floods, wildfires; cities consumed by oceans and deserts. There was hope, she said. Humans already had the technology necessary to meet the world’s energy needs. “At this point it’s purely a political problem,” she said—and Seamus saw Greg’s face and felt a stab of jealousy. How unbearable it was that this thieving slip of a man, with his politics and opinions and romantic history, might be right about everything.

 

In the late afternoons Seamus would start making dinner, and by the time Charity arrived home from work, by the time he’d glimpsed her glossy head in the front hall, he was jittery with anticipation—would walk out, his hands covered in fat or flour or oil, to watch her as she shed her shoes and pantyhose and jacket in a little pile at the bottom of the stairs. One night she came in and stripped all the way down to her underwear. She had the expression of somebody who might punch the next person who asked something of her.

“Is everything all right?”

“Get me out of these clown clothes.” She said she’d had a bad day but didn’t want to rehash it. “Petty shit.”

“Tell me.”

She stood there in her underwear, staring at him. Then she said, “Some asshole’s been bugging me at work.”

Who? Seamus wanted to know. And what did she mean by bugging?

It was just somebody’s stupid assistant. He’d been leaving her notes, hanging around her office, asking her out—nothing she couldn’t handle. Seamus was about to ask her another question, but she shook her head in a gesture that seemed so exhausted and miserable that he put his arms around her instead. She rested her head on his chest. Then she lifted her face to him and said, “Take your pants off, please. I’d like to have an all-consuming sexual encounter.”

Later that night he made her promise to tell him if the guy kept it up. “You can always call me from work,” he said. “I’ll come right down.”

“I know.”

The next week she was in Chicago for business. One afternoon he went out back in his pajama pants to water the flowers around the cottage. He was bending over to unfold a kink in the hose when he had the sudden sensation that he was being watched—not the metaphysical watching of a Father-Mother God that he had experienced in his childhood, but a pair of human eyes on him, taking him in. He turned off the hose and checked all around the house; there was nothing. He decided the solitude must be getting to him. It occurred to him in a sort of daydream that if Charity had set up a hidden camera somewhere, if she’d seen the current state of his days, she’d have to leave; no self-respecting woman could do otherwise. He needed a job, any job.

 

He spent the last day of her absence cleaning the house and applying for jobs. When she came home he asked her if she’d set up a nanny cam. She laughed. “What kind of trouble did you get into while I was gone?” she asked.

“I’m scared that you’ll see how depressing it is to be me without you.”

Sunday evening he opened his inbox and discovered an offer for an interview. It was at the D.C. branch of a small aerospace company that manufactured plane parts and supplied some defense contractors. He called Charity over and showed her the e-mail.

She was in one of her odd, almost reckless moods that had begun appearing at the end of each weekend.

“I bet those valves are for drones. You’re going to make drone valves for a living?”

“It’s not entirely clear.”

She was leaning on him, her elbow digging into his shoulder, breathing heavily near his ear.

“This is the world we live in,” Seamus said. “If I’m going to be a part of it, I have to grow a pair.”

She said he had beautiful balls, like gilded twin lapdogs guarding his asshole.

“Have you been drinking?”

“Yup.”

He asked why she was drinking alone, and she said she was trying to forget that it was the start of the workweek. “It takes too much carbon to turn myself into work Charity. I’m so fucking sick of blow-drying my hair.”

“I don’t think anybody would mind if you stopped blow-drying your hair.”

She climbed into his lap. “You’re very sweet.”

He could smell the alcohol on her breath. “Is it that guy, Charity? The one who was harassing you? Is that why you don’t want to go to work?”

She leaned back, examining his face so carefully that he wondered if there was something on his nose. “No,” she said. “Not that.”

“What is it?”

“I told you I didn’t want to do this shit forever,” she said.

“Well, at this point I think a terrible job is better than no job. I’m doing the interview.”

“You go on then,” she said solemnly, as if he were announcing a birth or death.

 

A week later Seamus was in a suit, riding the Metro into the city in the early afternoon. He found a seat in the corner, leaned his head back, and closed his eyes. The car was quiet except the hum of the wheels and the voice announcing the doors opening and closing. He was almost asleep when he felt a tap on his knee. A boy, maybe nine or ten years old, stood in front of him in a rubbery, forest-green raincoat that looked a couple of sizes too big for him. His hand was in front of him, and he was holding a fistful of paintbrushes, which stuck out of his fingers at angles, like twigs he’d scooped off the ground.

“You want to buy some brushes?” he said, staring at a spot just beyond Seamus’s shoulder with eyes that looked as if they had a film of algae growing over them. “They’re premium art-store quality.”

Seamus wondered if the kid had been kidnapped by a criminal ring of some sort, and then, because it seemed like the least he could do, he took out his wallet.

“Three dollars,” the boy said.

“All I have is a twenty.”

“That’s fine.”

Seamus handed him a bill, and the boy took it with one hand and then opened his first.

They were, in fact, nice brushes, art-store quality. Seamus picked out a slender one with smooth, golden bristles. The boy dropped the remaining brushes in the pocket of his slicker and turned away.

“My change?”

“Sorry, man,” the boy said with a shrug. “Can’t change a twenty.” He crossed the car and waited by the door, small and upright in the big green coat. Seamus watched him, feeling deflated, knowing he didn’t have it in him to chase down a kid in a rain jacket and demand his seventeen bucks back. The train stopped, and the boy hopped off. The doors slid closed behind him. Seamus watched as they pulled away from the station, the platform flickering to darkness. His own reflection appeared on the glass—a ghost Seamus staring back at him, woefully absurd in his suit and tie, like an oak tree dressed for dinner. He leaned his head against the window and allowed the knowledge he’d held at arm’s length to settle over him—that this fantasy that he would somehow rejoin the capital’s workforce, the industrial-military complex, was just that, an embarrassing fantasy.

As soon as he was above ground, he called to cancel the interview but kept landing in the wrong person’s voice mail. He gave up and went inside. He couldn’t bring himself to cancel at the front desk, where an older man, who smiled so sweetly that Seamus wondered if he’d mistook him for someone else, wrote down his name and directed him to a chair to wait. So Seamus waited in a small chair by a plant, growing more and more resentful as the minutes passed.

His interviewer, a middle-aged man in a suit, arrived half an hour past the scheduled time. Seamus followed him into an office and sat down on the far side of a large desk. He was feeling petulant in a way he hadn’t experienced in years. If only they’d had their receptionist answer the phone, or fixed their shit phone tree, he wouldn’t be there. Who thought it was a good idea to have computers answer phones anyways? What did the CIA do when it called to order more parts for their extrajudicial killing machines? Did they get the phone tree, too?

“Imagine an ideal day working for us,” the man said. “What do you see yourself doing?”

“Say you get some bad press over all the kids your drones are killing,” Seamus said.

The man interrupted to say they didn’t manufacture drones, but Seamus couldn’t have gotten off the ride if he’d wanted to: “I could design some animated Reaper drones for your splash page—some pretty little graphics of them taking out schools or ripping through family celebrations. We could set it all to an uplifting jingle.”

The man sighed. “If you’re here as a protester, I’m really not the guy to talk to.”

For the first time, Seamus really looked at him. He was older, probably in his late sixties, with the broad, gray head of an aging mastiff. He looked exhausted, as if he’d interviewed dozens of ill-mannered applicants that day.

“I’m sorry,” Seamus said. “I realized on the train over that I couldn’t work for a weapons manufacturer. I didn’t have the guts to cancel.”

The man nodded wearily. “Sometimes things get the better of us. I understand.”

Seamus said he was sorry again—and again—and then he got up and left as quickly as he could.

On the train home there was standing room only. He was sweating and uncomfortable in his suit, too miserable to be properly disgusted with himself about the interview. He just wanted to be home, curled up with Charity in bed. He anchored himself to a pole in the middle of the car and soon was wedged between another man—who could have been a congressman or a lobbyist if he hadn’t been riding the Metro—and a cheerful-looking woman in a red sweater. A young couple occupied the seats below him, the girl, pregnant, resting her hands on her belly. They were arguing. “If you bring up Hitler again I’m going to scream,” the girl said.

“But what’s to say it won’t happen again?” the boy said.

“Stalin killed twenty million people.”

“Jesus, it’s the Holocaust. The fucking Holocaust.”

The woman in the red sweater turned to Seamus and told him in a hushed voice that still managed to sound cheerily informative that there was no point in having the quantity-versus-quality argument when the basic premises were flawed: Stalin killed six, not twenty, million people, but he was also responsible for the first ethnic killing campaigns in interwar Europe—something people always credited to Hitler.

Her perfume was strong and flowery; Seamus could almost taste it in his mouth. “Excuse me,” he said, squeezing past her and pushing through the crowd to the nearest door, the one that divided the cars. It was locked. Panic swelled in his chest and he turned around, pushing back through the clot of people, the crowd of bodies and coats and suits and backpacks and bags, until he was at the exit doors. He stood there for minutes, bracing himself against the cool glass.

 

An hour later he was above ground under the darkening sky. It was raining, and he walked home with the cars hissing through puddles beside him—past strip malls, Chinese and Eritrean restaurants, the park entrance, onto the dimly lit residential streets of his neighborhood. The rain was soaking through his clothes, and by the time he reached his house, he was wet and exhausted. He turned the key in the lock and swung the door inward. It connected with something on the other side. “Charity?” She was standing right behind the door, wearing her coat. She squinted as if he were slightly out of focus, her lips set in a tight line. “You okay?” he asked. She shook her head.

“I have a problem with Greg.”

“Greg ?”

She seemed to be vibrating, as if she were struggling to bring herself back to him. “How was your interview?” she asked.

“I’m not taking that job.”

“Good,” she said. “They subcontract with Halliburton. I looked it up.” Then she said she had some business to take care of—she’d be back in a couple of hours. She tried to step around Seamus, but he blocked her. “Excuse me,” she said. Her hand was behind her back and he reached out and unfolded her arm, bringing her fist around so the tool she held was exposed between them. It was his toilet auger, a grimy looking thing with a handle and a couple feet of coiled steel wire connected to a pole. The label read CRAFTY TITAN.

“Seamus,” she said. “You don’t understand.”

He put his arms around her and pulled her toward him, the auger between them. “That thing’s unsanitary.”

She leaned her head against his chest, the smell of her hair filling his nostrils. “He’s been stalking me at the office—leaving me nasty notes. I don’t need this. You should be able to leave the past behind you, not track it into your new life on your shoes.” She stepped back and looked up at him. “I swear I wasn’t trying to lie to you, Seamus—I just didn’t want to deal.”

He didn’t know what to say. He asked her what she was planning on doing with his toilet auger.

“There’s some shit I need to unstick.”

“That’s not funny.”

She shrugged. “It’s kinda funny.” Then she said she figured she could whip the shit out of the old lady’s legs with the hanging bit. “It’s the only way to get to him—through his mother. It used to be me or his mother. Now it’s just her.”

“I couldn’t find a pipe,” she said. She reached into her jacket, pulled out a photo, and handed it to Seamus. It was a picture of himself, wearing plaid pajama pants and a T-shirt, watering the flowers in the pots outside Claudia and Irene’s cottage. Someone had written across his face in black marker, “Tell your parasitic landlord boyfriend he better watch his foie gras.”

“It was on my desk at work,” Charity said. Seamus stared at the photo. “See?” she said. “We can’t let him get away with this. It’ll only get worse.”

“How does he know you’re paying to live here?”

She shook her head. “He means parasite on society—as in the landlord class.”

“But he’s a burglar.”

“Don’t engage with his arguments.”

“Aren’t you engaging?”

“I’m not engaging, I’m escalating,” she said. “I’m raising the stakes so high he can’t afford to play.”

He laughed a little, although he felt like he might cry. It was all wrong, he said, the photo, the break-ins, the idea of whipping an old lady to teach her son a lesson. Charity glared at the photo in his hands, looking grimly determined. He saw that his only shot at dissuading her was to go along and look for an opening.

“Wait for me,” he said.

And after he had changed out of that awful suit and returned downstairs, he found her still there, waiting.

 

They drove across the city, through the night traffic and onto the bridge, where they sat in more traffic. The Potomac was broad and black below them, the radio playing eighties hits and commercials for mattresses and blustering DJs laughing at their own ignorant jokes.

“All those months I waited on her hand and foot,” Charity said. “You should have seen the way she talked to me.” She was very still beside him, her face in shadow.

In Arlington they parked a block away from the house and sat in silence for a moment in the dark car. He was sick with dread and something else that it took him a second to identify as desire. He reached over and touched her face in the shadows. Her cheek was cold under his fingers, and she leaned in and pressed her mouth against his. It tasted of something bright and cold, as if she’d been running outside. “You don’t have to do this for me,” she said.

“I know.”

They got out and walked toward the house, Charity carrying the toilet auger on her shoulder as if it were a bat. The ground was dry; the rain hadn’t come this far south. At the corner of the yard she said, “I gave him back the key. We’ll have to climb in. She leaves her window open, otherwise she overheats—like a pug.”

He followed her through the yard to the porch, and then up one of the pillars, which was surprisingly easy to climb. He pulled himself onto the shingles and crouched next to Charity. He was about to say something about how ironic it was that they were breaking into a housebreaker’s house—how it shouldn’t be that easy—when she put a finger to her lips and pointed to a window.

 

He found himself standing in a warm little bedroom, decorated as if it were a Victorian-themed movie set: ornate wallpaper, a fireplace, a four-poster bed with a lace canopy, and a thick, oriental rug. A massive woman in a pink bathrobe sat on the edge of the bed. She was in her early sixties, with thin, reddish hair; a large, round face; and the smooth, poreless skin of a small child. Her pink terrycloth robe spread out across the bed in a mountainous landscape, falling open at her legs, exposing a pair of pale thighs. For a moment she looked surprised, but the expression quickly changed to cold amusement.

“I’m here because I won’t be treated like this anymore, Mama,” Charity said, twisting the auger in her hands. Her voice rose with the last word. Sweat beaded on her upper lip and she was breathing quickly, shifting her weight between feet. She didn’t look like a woman who was going to whip the shit out of anyone. Seamus’s gut sank.

“Show me what you got there, honey,” Greg’s mother said, articulating the words as if she were talking to a toddler. She put forward a plump hand.

Charity held out the tool in her hands and walked towards the bed. Greg’s mother took the auger between a thumb and forefinger and dropped it onto the rug. Then she grabbed the girl’s wrists and pulled her down to kneeling, pressing Charity’s face into her lap, stroking her hair. Seamus saw Charity’s shoulders shaking. She was weeping in the woman’s thighs. The woman raised her eyes to Seamus with a look of humorous tolerance, as if they were fond custodians and Charity their damaged little charge.

“It’s okay, baby,” she said. “Everything’s going to be just fine.” She was obscene, Seamus thought—her royal manner, the presumption of camaraderie when she met his eyes, her meaty hand on the girl’s head. No, not the girl—Charity.

Charity lifted her face and said, “No, Mama, it’s not okay.”

And Seamus—who had finally arrived in a world where he was destined to witness but not understand—had to agree.

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