Andy turned off his wipers. He remained in his car with the engine running, pretending to inspect the bottom of his cleats. He held a shoe in one hand, and with the other he used a ballpoint pen to scrape at imaginary dirt around the studs. He had cleaned the cleats carefully earlier in the week, and of course he had cleaned them after the last time he had worn them, a year ago. They were very clean. He wasn’t ready to go inside yet, and he was trying to give the impression to any possible witnesses that he was busy and content here alone in his parked and running car. Through the curtain of rain on his windshield he thought he saw George, the public librarian, doing calisthenics on a berm. George was someone Andy did not want to see. George’s thin gray ponytail was just ridiculous, never more so than when trickling out of a football helmet. Whenever anyone asked George how he was doing or how his year had been, he always replied the same way: “Just doing my thing.” Then he would talk, in a slow and agonizingly thoughtful way, about budget cuts at both the state and local levels, the power of information, the marketplace of ideas, the future of the book, the public’s appetite for memoir, the digital divide, and, worst of all, the First Amendment. Andy hated talking to librarians, and he did not want to be hugged. He cut his engine, not unlike an animal playing dead. He worked earnestly and with renewed vigor at the pretend mud in his cleats. A sudden vaporous notion—he should not have come—dissipated before it could condense into conviction. He kept his head down, hoped George would menace someone else with his idealistic interpretations of devastating factual evidence.
There was a tap on the passenger-side window. Andy looked up to see George giving him what he believed to be the first peace sign he had ever seen outside of documentary footage. George’s face was so close to the window that he was fogging the glass.
“Hi, George,” Andy mumbled. He kept the doors shut, the windows raised.
“Andy!” George said.
“How’s it going?”
“Just doing my thing!” George yelled.
Andy pointed to his ear and shook his head, pretending he could not hear. He hoped these conditions would prove too difficult to support conversation.
“My thing!” George yelled.
“Our branch is closed on Tuesdays! Serious cuts!”
“Sorry to hear that,” Andy said into his cleats. The rain slid down the windshield and windows. Andy’s anxious breathing began to fog up the inside of the glass. George became a wet and indistinct blur, but Andy could still hear him speaking slowly through the window. He was disappointed about a tax referendum in his county, but he still had faith in the democratic process. The information was out there. The people could find it, make informed choices. Then something about either wetlands or weapons. Andy remained silent, hidden in his fortress of condensation. He was not, at this point in the weekend, having a good time, though he knew that good times were probably just for teenagers dancing around a big bonfire in a clearing in the woods with loud music playing from an open hatchback. After a few minutes, the talking stopped and the foggy blur disappeared from Andy’s passenger window. Andy had been inconsiderate, he knew. He thought of his wife, what she would say to him. She would say that he had been cruel to George. She would say that George wasn’t so bad. She would say he’s lonely. But Andy’s wife was the person who invariably, at any social gathering, ended up cornered by a gesticulating freak. The eccentrics preyed on her, sensing her weakness, her gentle open face, her listening skills. They had things they wanted to share—their health problems, their pets’ health problems, their unpublished fantasy novels, the fires that nearly destroyed their childhood homes, the recent spate of vandalism in their neighborhoods, their long estrangements from their felonious sons. Andy’s wife would stand for hours with her back to the artwork, so careful not to touch it, clutching an empty glass of wine, making eye contact, nodding at the lunatic. And then on the drive home she would brim with misanthropic rage. Why, she would want to know, had Andy not saved her? Could he not see that she was trapped by that woman with her fringed vest tucked into the elastic waist of her skirt? With those huge feather earrings? That woman talking for over an hour about chestnut blight? Andy recalled how strange it had been, in the first giddy months of marriage, to introduce her, to consider her, as his wife. And now it would be just as strange to think of her as his ex-wife.
Andy was startled by a loud knock on the driver’s-side window. The blur outside the car looked like it might be George. It knocked again with knuckles, rubbed the window with the wet sleeve of its jacket. “Andy?” It was George. “Are you still in there? What are you doing?”
Andy considered this question. What was he doing? Was he doing his thing? Was hiding from librarians his thing?
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
Michel Houellebecq, Deb Olin Unferth, David Szalay, Ann Beattie, Andrés Neuman, Padgett Powell, Chris Bachelder, Lucia Berlin, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Peter Cole, Coral Bracho, D. Nurkse, Xi Chuan, Radmila Lazić, Iman Mersal, Peter Cole, Nick Twemlow, Ishion Hutchinson, John Koethe, Aidan Koch
Padgett Powell, Yeltsin Spotted Abroad in a Bar
Coral Bracho, The Signal of His Urge
Ishion Hutchinson, The Difference
John Koethe, The Swimmer