The large yellow and black tiered box is rimed with dust. Ruth wipes a finger along its ridged top and sniffs the grey residue of dead skin, cobwebs and time. All it evokes is a sneeze. Getting herself a tissue, she grabs a wet cloth from the top of the kitchen sink and sets-to cleaning the outside of the layered toolbox. She wishes to erase the grime, and to polish and polish till it shines like – like what? A plastic container can’t shine, of course, but it can be cleansed and freed from the memories it might retain. She scrubs hard.
The first time Willa appeared to Stephen he thought he was dreaming. She slid shivering under the blankets. She felt as cold as ice and her flesh was almost the color of ice as she pressed into him. Any second he would awaken to an empty bed. But this was when his power over his dreams was at its peak. He would be able to make her want everything he wanted.
Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree. Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.
Does anyone – other than M. Bertillon from a seminal 1987 GCSE French textbook – still say ‘zut alors! ’? It is the sort of thing this icon of beret-wearing contrivance used to exclaim when stung by Kiki La Guêpe, prevented, as he was, from shouting the more realistic ‘Fuck me, that hurt!’
Hannah Pye had been with us about five years. She rented a small holding on the land side of the highway that ran through the township. She was a pleasant person, about 5’ 4’’, with an open, smiling face and a ruddy complexion. She dressed in the sort of determinedly outdoor clothing you can only get from specialist catalogues.
Ruth Adler had been my expert consultant and moral support when I wrote the book that elevated me to full professor, Newark Unbound: Place and Identity in the Fiction of Philip Roth. “The only place Philip Roth has ever found his identity is between a woman’s legs,” Helen would say. Ruth helped me laugh it off. But, threatening divorce, Helen had left. (Her departure had nothing to do with the book, by the way. That had been a gentle bump in the road for a marriage that ultimately developed potholes the size of craters.) Ruth’s husband, Joel, had died, and her only child had died in her teens a decade earlier. It was time to shed grief and assume new identities, or at least try. And I’d been in love with Ruth’s mind forever. It was easy to forgive her for being smarter than me because she was so much smarter than me. The truth is that she was out of my league.
Jonah was not conscious in the way that humans would deem as being so. On the day he ‘met’ Lily, he was with other bodies whose skin, or synthetic dermal coating, was the same as his. They all stood in a line, in a seedy sex shop in Soho. Since the law had long said he was not a person, not a real person, he was not allowed, he was unlawful. Because of this, he was without protection. Jonah had seen his friends bought by other customers, or other things or bodies that looked somewhat like him with his outer shell, but needed to be turned on first, before fucking, whereas Jonah was turned on all the time. Inside his synthetic skin, Jonah wondered at these creatures.
“Whiskey is a sure fire cure for every illness.” I know that voice — the only one with a British accent I heard out West. I spent three months chasing that voice through the streets of Tempe, Arizona, so I can’t help but stand at attention and wonder what the hell Emmett is doing in New York.
What goes around never comes around. That’s our tragedy. Life is one-way; there’s no return journey. Our single ticket allows us to see ourselves as part of a cycle, which is humbling, yet debars us from taking part in its completion, which is tragic. When we understand this there can be no premature opting-out. We see it through, painlessly if we’re lucky. But the tragedy is complicated by the absurd, in that what we are resigned to leaving behind is what we want more of. At the point of death, we crave more life.
You will almost certainly have heard of my husband Marcus, the author of a series of highly successful books on intuitive relationship management. He has been fêted from Dublin to Dubai and is credited with rescuing the marriages of many thousands. I feel a deep gratitude toward those thousands, for they have supplied me, through their eagerness to buy my husband's books and attend his seminars, with a standard of living almost embarrassingly high. The size of our villa in the San Fernando Valley is a particular asset, as it enables us to maintain a polite distance. Marcus and I have, over many a long year, mastered what may be a uniquely convivial form of loathing.