Issue 171, Fall 2004
Luc lay atop the sheets of his bunk bed, staring at a dim patch of light on the ceiling. To summon sleep, he cataloged the odors wafting through his window: roasted almonds, fermenting grapes, fertilizer, mud, dust. Pine sap and pool chlorine, together, two narrow bands of scent. Sometimes he wondered if he was the only one with a nose.
The Merrills next door were throwing a party, and just when Luc felt himself on the brink of sleep, someone would burst out laughing or say something curious, and he would bolt awake. He could reach out the window and touch the fence. House, narrow side yard, fence, narrow side yard, house—block after block of this was Madera.
A moth alighted on the ceiling, wavered, and flew away in search of brighter patches of light. Luc smelled a cigar. He heard what sounded like water draining out a downspout. He turned over to look outside. It was not raining. A tall fat man with muttonchops stood in the Merrills’ side yard, peering into his window. No, not peering into his window. Merely facing his window, peering down at his pee. Luc could not recall ever having seen a grown man urinating outdoors.
The cataract subsided to a trickle; the man sighed, went up on his toes a moment, zipped, and raised his eyes to meet Luc’s.
“When you gotta go, kid, you gotta go.” He winked.
“Yes,” Luc said. “Like a bird.”
“Exactly,” said the man.
“Not exactly,” said Luc.
“What are you doing in that window?”
“This is my room.”
“Are you watching our party?”
“Now I am,” said Luc. “Are Mr. and Mrs. Merrill very drunk?”
The man smiled and nodded, eyebrows twitching. Drunk people were like other people, only more obvious.
“As drunk as you?”
The man held up both hands. “Stay here a moment, will you?” He jogged down the side yard onto the back patio and into the Merrills’ house. A partygoer said: “Slow down, Hector.”
Luc craned his head out the window. The party was mainly indoors and out of sight, but a few smokers had ventured onto the patio in twos and threes, backlit by the toothpaste-blue glow of the Merrills’ swimming pool. Beyond the smokers, beyond the pool, a shadowy apron of ice plant ran all the way back to the fence. A thousand shadow-tarantulas, sleeping, or dead. Waiting for Luc. His older brother, Etienne, had taught him how to handle a tarantula, how to let it crawl all over his hands as if it was nothing, so it wouldn’t bite.
Hector returned with Mr. and Mrs. Merrill.
“There he is,” he said.
Mr. Merrill edged close to the fence. He was tall and thin, with a high forehead and a slightly drooping right eye, which evoked sleepiness, belligerence, or both. Small round glasses hovered over his lumpy cheeks. Out of doors, Luc had noticed, Mr. Merrill always wore a jacket and tie; he wore them now. His neatly combed hair looked as though it would feel crispy to touch.
Mr. Merrill looked to his wife and Hector.
“He’s in his room,” he whispered.
“I’ve got eyes,” said Mrs. Merrill. She also had a tremendous overbite, and her smile—presented automatically upon human contact—exposed such an expanse of teeth and gums that Luc feared she would someday short-circuit and bite him.
Mr. Merrill put his hand on Hector’s shoulder. “You say he spoke to you?”
“Sure,” Hector said. “He asked . . . if you were drunk.”
“Has he ever spoken to you?” Mr. Merrill asked his wife.
“Me either.” He looked at Luc. “Hello?”
Mr. Merrill shook his head and addressed Hector, Mrs. Merrill, the sky: “I’ve seen him practically every day for two years now, walking past the house. I’ve said hello hundreds of times, but he’s never said anything to me.” He turned to Luc. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Eddie Merrill.”
“I know. Are you having fun at your party?”
“As a matter of fact I am.”
“I would like to come to your party.”
Mrs. Merrill’s smile disappeared. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
But Mr. Merrill seemed energized by the prospect. He ignored his wife and placed his hands on the top of the fence. With surprising athleticism, he crouched down and sprung up to push himself atop the fence; then he jumped into Luc’s side yard, tearing his pants audibly. He beckoned Luc to the window. “Sit on the sill facing into your room,” he said. “Now lean back onto my hands.”
Luc hesitated. His courage was being tested, like when he learned to back-dive. He told himself that Mr. Merrill would act as expected and leaned back onto his wide flat palms.
“Arms at your sides, now. Make yourself stiff, like a board.” Now Mr. Merrill got hold of his lower back and Hector had his shoulders. Two more hands—Mrs. Merrill!
They floated him, hand over hand, across the fence, and for a moment, Luc’s vision was filled with night sky. He caught a glimpse of a familiar cluster—his brother Etienne had shown him once—made up of hundreds of stars, only a half-dozen of which we could see. Any one of those stars could come down now, a silver needle, pin his chest, and mount him here, a specimen, five feet above the ground. “The Pleiades,” he said.
Even as Mrs. Merrill helped Hector bring him down, she protested. “We can’t do this,” she said. “Eddie, we must return him right away.”
The warm dirt under his bare feet reminded Luc that he was flesh and bone. Mr. Merrill struggled to get back over the fence: “This side isn’t as easy.” Mrs. Merrill’s hand was a vise on Luc’s upper arm. “Don’t you come over here,” she said. “We’re going to put him back.”
“Release,” said Luc.
She didn’t seem to hear him.
She looked down at him and smiled. “Yes?”
Finally she let go and he sprang down the side yard toward the pool. Light shimmered across the ice plant and the shadows shook at his approach—the tarantulas had come to life. His tarantula army! And then plain ice plant again.
He turned and looked back. Mr. Merrill had just made it over the fence. The three adults stood at the mouth of the side yard, squinting at him. Ice plant broke under his feet. A group of people stood outside the sliding glass door, smoking, watching the living room. The awful singing stopped for a few minutes and started again. Now a gray-haired woman turned to survey the backyard and saw him. She tapped another woman’s shoulder, who turned to look as well. Others followed until everyone outside had turned, like metal filings turning toward a magnet, all of them looking at him.
A phone rang inside. Mrs. Merrill pushed through the group, grumbling. “Ask Eddie,” she said. “It was his cockamamy idea.” She moved a fat man to the side, and Luc’s reflection appeared for a moment in the sliding glass door, a double reflection, on two superimposed panes. Lit by the edges of the backyard floodlight and by the antiseptic glow of the pool, Luc looked to himself like a blue ghost.
The song ended with a tortured whimper, everyone turned toward the living room, applauding, and somewhere in the mechanical fluttering of hands, Luc lost his reflection.
Mr. Merrill had appeared beside him.
“I don’t want to go home,” Luc said.
“You don’t have to. It’s my party, after all.”
They stood together in the ice plant. Mr. Merrill put his hand on Luc’s shoulder. “Do you like our house?”
He hadn’t thought about it. “Looks like my house,” he said. “Except for the party.”
“Wait until we get inside.” He pushed gently forward on Luc’s shoulder and Luc walked toward the house.
The walls of the living room had been covered with some kind of painter’s tarp, and the concrete floor—no carpeting—was cold under Luc’s bare feet. A pixielike woman sang in the corner, reading lyrics off a karaoke machine. Party-goers stood around the room. They looked stiff in their fancy clothes. Surprisingly few took notice of him. Mainly they held drinks and talked, or watched the singer, nodding their heads mechanically to the beat. Folding chairs had been placed around the room, not facing the karaoke but rather making a rectangle around the empty center of the room.
“Would you like a drink?” Mr. Merrill asked.
Luc sat in one of the folding chairs, Indian-style, to get his feet off the cold floor. “I would like a red-eye,” he said.
“Red-eye? Like in the cartoons.”
“It’s different.” His father frequently drank beer and tomato juice, and he called it a red-eye. Luc has tried the drink once, and it had tasted horrible. But it seemed appropriate for Mr. Merrill’s party.
“How about apple juice?”
Mrs. Merrill rushed in from the other room, placed her hand on the back of her husband’s neck. She was obviously annoyed that Luc was still there, but she tried to disguise her annoyance from him: She smiled.
“That was the Polks on the phone,” she said.
“Mm,” said Mr. Merrill.
“Complaining about the noise. Apparently Judy’s got an early appointment tomorrow.”
“Fuck them.” Mr. Merrill looked at Luc. “Sorry.” Luc nodded. “Look,” he continued, “I don’t care about the Polks. It’s my birthday. It’s the weekend. We have every right to throw a party.”
“It’s almost three a.m. They’ll call the police next.”
Mrs. Merrill pointed her eyes at Luc. She leaned in close to Mr. Merrill’s ear, close enough to bite it off. “There’s a boy at our party.”
This seemed to convince him. “Fine,” he said. He walked over to the karaoke machine, where the pixie-like woman had just finished her song. He took the microphone. “Folks,” he said, “I’m sorry to say that the karaoke portion of the evening has come to a close.”
People booed, halfheartedly.
“No, no,” he said, hand raised. “The fun has just begun. Our special guests—direct from France—are here to perform for us. Pick out a folding chair, freshen up your drink.” He put the microphone down, clunk, then picked it up again. “And if you happen to see a little boy around here, eight years old or so, take care not to disturb him. He’s sleepwalking.”
“I’m awake,” said Luc, but nobody heard him. Someone had caught sight of the tear in Mr. Merrill’s pants.
“Eddie! Your pants are ripped! Look everyone, his pants are ripped!”
Again Mrs. Merrill gripped Luc by the arm. She waved Hector over. “Could you kindly return this little boy to his bedroom?” she asked.
Hector nodded. “Come on,” he said. Luc followed him to the threshold of the sliding glass door, where Hector stopped. “Okay. She’s in the kitchen now. We’re going to have to make a run for it.” Luc didn’t understand until he saw Hector moving for the hallway instead of the patio. He followed, his feet relieved by the plush carpeting of the hall. This was unexpected.
“You don’t want to leave now,” Hector said. “The best is yet to come.” He opened the hall closet. “Hide in here. I’ll get you when the show starts. You won’t be disappointed.” He winked. Luc shut himself in among the hanging coats. Mothballs and dust. What kind of show were they going to put on? Whatever happened to that apple juice?
The muffled sounds of the party, the darkness of the closet, the soft coats and warm carpet, all of these elements conspired to make him feel sleepy for the first time tonight. He did not want to fall asleep in the Merrills’ closet, though. Baby-sitter Molly Glantz would awaken to find him missing and call his parents in Montreal, and they would miss the dedication ceremony for the Etienne Jacobsen Memorial Scholarship, and he would be blamed for falling asleep in a closet, and no one would ever understand—it could never be sufficiently communicated to them how comfortable he felt between those coats, on that carpet, behind that door, at that moment.
He pushed the door open and emerged from his cocoon. Mrs. Merrill was in the living room, so he went the other way, down the long L-shaped hall. The door at the end was open a crack and there was light inside.
He approached quietly and peered in: a bedroom. He heard no voices, only a faint sniffling. He was about to turn back when he noticed something atop the dresser. A tiny jack-o’-lantern, facing to the side, one triangular eye and half a crescent mouth. A tall green stem at the top. It was late August, and the Merrills had a tiny jack-o’-lantern on their dresser.
He stepped into the room.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” Mr. Merrill said.
He continued toward the dresser, and the jack-o’-lantern’s eyes and mouth shifted away as he approached, until they were gone, wiped off. The pumpkin’s stem had gradually drifted to the other side and now revealed itself to be the stem of a larger plant, a plant that had cast peculiar shadows on an ordinary orange.
Luc looked into the mirror above the dresser. Mr. Merrill sat in a small chair by the window. On a table below him was a mirror with white powder on it. Through the mirror on the table, Luc could see a dark spot below Mr. Merrill’s chin—he had missed a spot shaving.
“What is that?” Luc asked, turning.
“Can I have some?”
“No.” Mr. Merrill picked up a short straw, twirled it between his fingers. “It’s mine.”
“But other people have had some?”
Mr. Merrill scratched the back of his neck. “It would kill you, probably.”
Luc stepped closer to the table, looked down at the mirror, saw his face ringed by a nimbus of white powder.
“Have a seat.”
Luc sat at the edge of the bed.
“Now, you’re not going to tell anyone about this cocaine, are you?”
“Good.” Mr. Merrill smiled. “Are you enjoying the party?”
“It’s my fiftieth. My wife said I could have whatever type of party I wanted. We don’t usually have cocaine here. Or birthday parties. Or kids.”
Luc nodded, reached out to touch the powder.
“Don’t,” Mr. Merrill said firmly.
He pulled his hand back.
“Why didn’t you ever respond when I said hello to you all those times?”
Luc said nothing.
“Is it a secret?”
He looked carefully at Mr. Merrill. His drooping eyelid seemed locked in a wink, but all night Luc had seen Mr. Merrill’s eyes alighting on things, perching for a moment, flying on to other things.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Mr. Merrill said. “Then you can tell me a secret. Even trade, okay?”
“We don’t have kids because I can’t have kids. You understand?”
Mr. Merrill clasped his hands together. “That’s my secret.”
“It’s nice to have a kid around.”
“Heard of King Midas?”
“His barber dug a hole in the ground and whispered into it. His secrets.”
The door swung open. When Hector saw Luc he turned pale. “There you are,” he said.
“I guess this is as good a hiding place as any, now that he knows about the . . . ” he touched his nose.
“I’m Midas’s barber,” said Luc.
Hector gave him a blank look and turned to Mr. Merrill. “The guests from France are just about ready.”
Mr. Merrill nodded.
“I’ll watch the kid until things get started.”
Mr. Merrill looked at Luc. “This party isn’t just for me. It’s for you, too.” He rose and walked out.
“What do we do now?” asked Luc.
“For the long note.”
He had no idea what Hector was talking about, but he was willing to wait. He did not feel like going home before seeing the guests from France, whoever they were.
Hector wheezed with every breath.
“You could use a tune-up,” said Luc.
“You mean the cocaine?”
“No. A tune-up.”
They sat in silence for a while. A low moaning musical sound started up in the other room. Hector looked relieved. “Come on,” he whispered, “it’s starting.”
Luc went ahead of him and opened the door. The single note, he could hear now, was being played on some string instruments. He edged down the L-shaped hall to the bend and peeked around the corner. The lights had been dimmed and two spotlights shone on the center of the floor. Everyone sat in a sort of rectangle around the center. He didn’t see Mrs. Merrill, so he went ahead until he could see that a man in a clear plastic mask and beret stood to one side of the rectangle. He seemed to be instructing the musicians with a baton he held in his left hand. Luc moved up behind the chairs, finding a good view between people’s shoulders. Now he saw Mrs. Merrill. She did not see him—she was looking at the man in the mask, the director.
The string instruments played the same low note without stopping. Someone had laid a thick white sheet on the floor. Two young women in robes entered the rectangle and stood in the center. The women removed their robes and handed them to people in the front row. Now they did not have any clothing on. No one in the audience made any sound. The women looked gleaming white under the spotlights. Luc had never been to France.
The women did not smile but did not seem unhappy. He was reminded of Mass at St. Joachim’s, where you didn’t know what would happen next but were expected to stay quiet and respect the rituals. The director put down his baton and picked up a paint roller. The musicians kept playing. He rolled the roller in a tray of bright blue paint. He approached the first woman. Paint dripped onto the sheet.
He painted the front side of the woman, from her neck down to her thighs and said something to her Luc could not hear. She lowered herself to the floor and rubbed her body on the sheet. Luc moved closer. She’d left a body-print in bright blue, like a hand-print, but with the whole front of her body. The strings kept playing the same note but it sounded different in his head. It was like saying a word over and over until it didn’t mean anything anymore.
The director painted the other woman and she rolled herself on the sheet. They repeated this several times, painting with different parts of their bodies at different angles. They worked slowly, as if they had all night. The music stopped.
The women put on their robes and walked out of the room. The director stood at the edge of his painting, baton raised. Everyone sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. The director dropped his baton and the room burst into applause. The director took bows in all four directions, and not until the fourth bow—facing directly away from Luc—did Luc see that the back of his pants were torn.
Luc waited until the sheet had been pulled up and tacked to the wall, until all the guests had finished congratulating the director—he saw now that they knew he was Mr. Merrill but pretended, for some reason, that he had come from France with the women. He accepted their congratulations silently, with a simple nod of the head. Mrs. Merrill spotted Luc then, and he made a dash down the hall. He knew he was cornered. He waited around the bend for her to retrieve him. But when a shadow grew on the wall and materialized before him, it was Mr. Merrill, not his wife, mask pulled onto his forehead, beret gone.
He squinted at Luc, pulled his glasses out of his front pocket, and asked: “What did you think, kid?”
Luc had never seen anything like it in his life. It was beautiful. It didn’t seem to have a reason. Mr. Merrill had been the director. He didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry?” Mr. Merrill stopped. “Are you all right? I worried it might be a little much for you.”
“No,” Luc said. “I never said hello to you. I thought you were a robot, like everyone else.”
Mr. Merrill crouched down to his height, looked into his eyes. His forehead wrinkled in confusion. Luc smiled to let him know he didn’t mean to hurt his feelings. Mr. Merrill stood straight again and laughed. “Robots,” he said. “That’s a good one.”
Luc did not laugh. “That’s my secret.”
Mr. Merrill stopped laughing, looked confused again. “Oh.”
Another shadow, growing on the wall. Mrs. Merrill. “Eddie, it’s time for this boy to go home. I thought he was gone already and here he is popping up again. Do you have any idea what kind of hot water he could get us into?” She grabbed Luc by the arm.
She gripped tighter.
“Let’s be sensible,” said Mr. Merrill.
“Sensible? His baby-sitter is at the door.”
Mrs. Merrill pulled Luc toward the front entry.
“Wait—” said Mr. Merrill. But his wife did not listen to him. She kept pulling Luc toward the front door. Mr. Merrill followed.
Molly Glantz stood on the welcome mat in a robe (his mother’s robe!) and sneakers.
Hector, who had answered the door, was the first to offer an explanation. “Strangest thing,” he said, “out of nowhere, this boy was wandering around the party.”
Mrs. Merrill smiled tensely. “I gave him some apple juice.
I hope that’s all right.”
“It’s fine,” said Molly. “Thank you for calling.” She took Luc’s arm from Mrs. Merrill. “Wait until I tell your parents about this,” she said. Then she addressed Mr. Merrill: “I appreciate your looking after him.”
“Yes,” he said. It seemed as though he was going to say something else but stopped himself. He removed his glasses, wiped them on his shirt tail, and put them on again. “I was out back,” he said, “trying to keep the noise down on the patio, when he came over the fence. We didn’t know what to think.”
Luc looked at Mr. Merrill, sought to detect some change in his face but found none.
“Mr. Merrill?” Luc said.
Mr. Merrill would not look at him.
Molly said, “Now Luc, there’s no need to cry.” They walked out the front door, down the brick path, along the concrete sidewalk, and up the brick path to Luc’s house. Brick, concrete, brick. Celestial departure, terrestrial return.
He went into his bedroom and shut the door. His bed felt damp and cool—he had been sweating before, when he’d been cataloging the scents outside his window. He crawled under the sheets and closed his eyes. He tried to resume cataloging the scents, but found he could not. A few days after his parents had left for Montreal, he had watched a documentary about his brother’s disappearance. The videotape had been sitting in his parents’ bedroom for over a year. He wasn’t allowed to watch it, but the tape had been left out, and Molly was not a very attentive baby-sitter.
His parents hadn’t ever talked with him about the details of Etienne’s death. He had always assumed God was behind it. His brother’s absence from his life was one of God’s tests for him, he’d thought, not the fault of any single person.
The video showed that Etienne, on break from McGill, had set out to visit the rest of the family in California. There were pictures of Etienne’s vw bus with the camper on top—in which Luc used to enjoy playing. Etienne had made it as far as Nebraska when the vw broke down. In a town called North Platte he met two men who offered to fix it in exchange for a ride. They fixed it, and the three of them drove into Colorado, where the two men decided they wanted to steal the vw for themselves. They stabbed Etienne to death in the back of the van and dumped his body in a ravine. He was missing for months before detectives found his body in the spring thaw. There was a whole section on how the two men were caught, and how the jail time they received was too short for the crimes they committed.
Luc had visited his brother’s dorm room the fall before he went missing. Now when he felt Etienne slipping away from him, he recited in his head a litany of objects he’d seen there. The shiny toaster oven and its collection of crumbs. A lime green telephone with a stretched and tangled cord. A tiny brown refrigerator, tucked under a table. Hundreds of books and cassette tapes. A bed above a desk. A corkboard with numbers, notes, ideas, McGill calendar. A bubbly distorted windowpane, a wide sill. A map of the heavens (Look Luc—Canis Major has puppies!). A rotting jack-o’-lantern, its collapsing face. A small glass terrarium. Blue sand pocked with the footprints of a pet tarantula. The tarantula.
A hoarse whisper outside the window interrupted him. “Luc, can you hear me?”
Then Mrs. Merrill’s voice. “Eddie, we’ve had enough fun for one night.”
“Thank you for coming to my party.”
“Get away from there, Eddie.”
“Listen carefully, Luc. Listen to me.” Mr. Merrill was right opposite his window. “You’re not alone.”
“They’ll call the cops!”
“I can prove it.”
Mr. Merrill’s footsteps receded. Luc turned to look out the window. Mr. Merrill ran down the side yard toward the pool. He launched himself into the air over the calm water. He was still wearing his suit and tie. There was an enormous splash. From the choppy surface his head emerged. His hair fell down his forehead, almost covering his eyes. His glasses were gone. He smiled blindly and broadly, bobbing in the blue water.
“Robots rust, Luc! They rust!”
He waved his arms like a windmill, launching handfuls of water above his head. He stopped. His smile disappeared and his eyes grew wide. His jaw clenched. He froze.
Hector, in underwear and t-shirt, came flying through the air, knees tight to his chest. He hit the water inches from Mr. Merrill and the splash knocked Mr. Merrill off balance. The two came up together, waving their arms, sending water everywhere. They were followed by the women from France, bodies blue with paint. After them, others leapt in, one by one, then two or three at a time.