The Invisible World
In the summer between my fifth and sixth years of college, I landed a job at the Atomic Bookshop. At around noon on my third day, the owner, Gene, asked me to “realphabetize” the cookbooks and shelve some new arrivals. “You’ll find Cookbooks at waist level,” he said, “under Gardening.” So I wheeled my cart past Poetry and through Philosophy. Gene was right. Customers had left the cookbooks in disarray. I hummed the alphabet song, ignored a creepy feeling that someone was watching me, and slotted Jacques Pepin between the O’s and Q’s.
Then I saw Carolyn Farrier’s brown eyes blink in the gap between the books and the shelf above. Carolyn was the shop’s other employee. She had dirty-blonde hair, cut in the disheveled-hipster look of the day, and wore rectangular, black-framed glasses. She claimed to be eleven years older than I, but didn’t look it. Because she had worked at the shop for three months, Gene appointed her to be my trainer. Her orientation course covered three topics: the art of not annoying Gene, the art of strategically annoying Gene, and the art of fooling Gene by looking busy while doing little.
When I spotted her eyes between the shelves, she whispered, “Someone wants you.”
“And who might that be?” I asked, assuming this was flirtation and Carolyn was speaking of herself.
“Your mom,” she said. “She’s here with some dreadfully old man in tow.”
I leaned toward the gap and asked Carolyn to tell my mom I had gone to lunch.
“No way,” Carolyn said. “Gene told me to get you. Better hurry or your mommy might give you an early bedtime.” She grinned as she said this.
I walked around the corner, and she reached out from Self Help to touch my arm.
“I was watching you,” she said.
At the checkout desk, Gene pecked at his calculator. My mom—decked in a lemon-yellow golf suit and sun visor—gripped my Grandpa Jerry by the sleeve of his pastel-blue coveralls. Grandpa Jerry wasn’t Mom’s father, but my other mother’s travels often left Mom stuck with the old man.
“I know this is awful,” she said. “I know, I know, but I have to do it.”
I straightened the Dr. Strangelove postcard rack and tried to conjure up a bulletproof objection. Before I could speak, Carolyn jumped in.
“I found him in Cookbooks,” she said from behind me.
Mom squinted at Carolyn then at me. “Your mother missed her flight again,” Mom said. “She’ll be home late.”
Grandpa Jerry shrugged free of Mom’s grip and reached for a volume of black-and-white nude photos on a shelf beneath the register.
I asked Mom what exactly she wanted from me. She shut the book in Grandpa Jerry’s hands, put it back on the shelf, and tugged his wrist toward me.
“I can’t stand this for another minute,” she said. “Please just take him.”
“Hey,” Grandpa Jerry said. “I’m not a sack of potatoes.”
Mom backed toward the door. “See you in three hours,” she said.
I told her I’d love to help if I weren’t on the job.
“Sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry.” And the door swung shut.
Carolyn chuckled. Gene scowled over the top of his glasses. Grandpa Jerry looked down at my hand on his wrist and followed the curve of my arm up to my shoulder. When he saw my face, he made a pop with his lips and asked if I knew of a White Castle in the neighborhood.
* * *
Gene covered the register, and Carolyn and I took Grandpa Jerry to the Velvet Freeze around the corner. As we walked, an ambulance cruised past at about ten miles per hour. The EMTs stared at us. “They should do a job,” Grandpa Jerry said. When Carolyn asked what he thought their jobs were, he said, “Picking up the pieces.”
A morbid laugh bubbled from Carolyn’s throat. “What pieces?”
Grandpa Jerry winked at me. “Pieces of the fools whose asses I’ve kicked.”
Carolyn draped an arm over his shoulder. “Oh, I bet you kicked a lot of ass in your day,” she said, “when you weren’t dazzling the ladies.”
“Ah, the ladies,” Grandpa Jerry said. “I bet I’ve bedded more of them than this kid here”—he patted my hand—“has taken shits.”
At the Velvet Freeze, Carolyn asked about my Mom and my mother.
They’re a couple, I said. I have two moms. My mother is my biological mother. And my Mom is my mom.”
“I’m confused,” Carolyn said.
“Join the club,” Grandpa Jerry said. He pulled a snapshot from his wallet and handed it to Carolyn. “This is Rose,” he said. “My wife.”
Carolyn brought the picture closer to her face then passed it to me. It was a faded, black-and-white, glamour shot of my late Grandma Rose. She reclined on a sofa, dressed in a sheer negligee, black panties, a garter belt, and black silk stockings. Her nipples were big and dark. She looked about thirty years old. I stuffed the wrinkled photo into Grandpa Jerry’s wallet and paid with a check.
* * *
Later, a week into my book-shelving career, someone sneaked up behind me in Poetry. As I leafed through an old Norton Anthology of English Literature, Carolyn’s half-whispered voice reached my ear before I knew she was there, inches behind me. She recited “To His Coy Mistress” from memory. But “recited” may not be the best verb to describe what she did. Carolyn planted that poem on my ears with her lips and her breath. She smelled faintly of fennel. I shut my eyes, and when she got to the bit about amorous birds of prey, her lips swooped down and grazed my neck.
After the poem, I pulled Carolyn’s face to mine and kissed her. She turned away and said she was too old for a kid like me. I tried to kiss her again, but she walked past the customer bathroom and vanished into Fiction.
* * *
That evening, when our shift ended, Carolyn agreed to let me buy her dinner at La Creperie. The hostess seated us by the kitchen door. Carolyn ordered a bottle of Cotes du Ventoux, which arrived quickly, followed by Crawfish Etouffee to go with our strained conversation about favorite books, music, and films.
Then I asked about her wedding ring.
She scratched at a tiny wine stain in the tablecloth.
“Oh come on,” I said. “Where’s your husband?”
“The last of the international playboys?” she said. “He’s on an extended business trip to Saudi, by way of Istanbul, via Rome, via London.”
“What does he do?” I asked.
“He says he makes it rain, but really he watches changing oil prices and occasionally meets rich people for drinks. But let’s not talk about him tonight.”
“What’s his name?”
“What’s he like?”
Deltas of wrinkles tightened at the corners of her eyes. “He is deeply fucked up,” she said. Under the table, her fingers found my knee. “What Simon doesn’t see won’t hurt him.” Her chin tipped up and exposed her neck. She squeezed my thigh.
I flattened her hand on my leg and said it was a damn good thing Simon wasn’t around. Carolyn raised her glass to that, and while I paid she stepped out to the sidewalk to make a call on her cell phone. I watched through the plate glass window as she chopped the air with her hands. When the call ended, she waved for me to follow.
* * *
And I did. I followed to where we had parked our cars. I followed her car through downtown into a cozy neighborhood north of the college. I followed up the walk to her front door. And I followed along a carpeted hallway to her bedroom, where we did things I was pretty sure Carolyn’s husband would have killed me for, had he caught us.
She tore off my shirt, examined my chest, slid off my pants, told me to stand still, and stared at my legs. “Turn around,” she said. “Very nice.” She took off her glasses, folded them, and set them on the dresser. “Now, come here.”
We kissed and rolled on the carpet awhile. My feet bumped her laundry basket. My fingers tangled in her hair. She stood and let her dress fall to her feet. I watched her exquisite body—full breasts, wide hips, a tiny paunch of a belly—move through the candlelight to a full-length mirror on a closet. And we both watched her caress her legs, her arms, and her neck.
She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out a wooden-handled brush. She placed the brush on the floor in front of me, then got on her hands and knees and arched her back.
“Brush me,” she said.
“I’m a pony. Brush me down.”
“Wait,” I said. I pointed at a picture frame on the nightstand.
“Does he have to be here?”
The photo showed a big-nosed man in his thirties with a line of fuzz on his upper lip, smiling after blowing out a candle on a cupcake. He was seated at a table in a Mexican restaurant. He held a red napkin in one hand and a knife in the other. His teeth looked slightly too small for his mouth. Carolyn trotted over and put the picture in a drawer. Then she turned, leaned on the bed, and smiled. I flashed for a second on my Grandma Rose, posed for posterity in the warmth of Grandpa Jerry’s wallet. But here was Carolyn, handing me the horse brush, guiding me to stroke her skin in small circles from her neck to her hindquarters. It took only a moment to banish Grandma Rose from my thoughts.
* * *
Now and then, during our equestrian training sessions, I wondered what Carolyn’s husband would think if he saw me guiding his wife in tight circles around the arena of his bedroom. Gradually, though, I came to pretend Carolyn had no husband at all. She was my pony, I told myself, all else be damned. One night I guided Carolyn onto the bed and dropped her reins, eased the bit gag from her mouth, and slid the leather side straps down around her ears. Her head shuddered. She nuzzled her nose to my chest. When I had removed her gear and brushed her down, I rolled over and blew out the bedside candle. Smoke floated through the open window. My feet dangled over the edge of the bed, and I told Carolyn she should come to my place the next night.
She reached into the drawer for a pack of matches and lit the candle again.
“How’s your grandpa?” she asked.
I told her he was fine, and again I said she should come over.
“I can’t talk about it now,” she said. “It’s getting late. Time for you to go.”
“Simon might call.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“The time difference,” she said. “It’s confusing. But I should be here. And you should go.” She kissed my hand.
I rested my head on her belly. Her intestines made dark, slippery sounds. She brushed her feathered plume across my cheek. “Come on,” she said. “I’m sleepy.”
“Do I have to go?”
“Does he have to go?” she asked the empty house.
* * *
That summer, I had rented a small room with a hot plate, a dorm fridge, and two closets, the larger of which housed a toilet and shower. Not long after the Fourth of July, I persuaded Carolyn to spend our lunch break at my apartment. We ate an entire bag of chips and onion dip. She paced the room and opened and shut the curtains. I asked what was wrong.
“Nothing,” she said.
She put a hand on my cheek. Her fingers were moist. I patted the bed, smoothed the wrinkles in the sheet. She kissed me, and we made love then without hesitation, without straps, halters, mirrors, or candles—and without a picture of her husband tucked away in a nearby drawer. Then we did it again. And it was nothing like our equestrian events in her bedroom: no brush, no tack, no lingering by the mirror to shake her mane and admire her gear.
* * *
Back at the bookshop, Mom called to beg me to take Grandpa Jerry out so she could have a few hours to breathe. When I got to my parents’ house, Mom stuffed eighty dollars in my hand and told me to keep him out as long as I possibly could.
Four hours later, at Murphy’s Tavern, Grandpa Jerry ordered his fifth bourbon and slapped my shoulder. “What’s your game, friend?” he said, trying to figure out who I was and how he knew me.
“Books,” I said. “I work in books.”
Grandpa Jerry nodded. “Publishing or writing?”
“I’ll be damned,” he said. “It just so happens I’m a writer. Poems, mostly.”
“Poetry, eh?” I sipped my beer. “What are your poems about?”
“Nature,” he said. “And man-made things. I’m the best damn poet the world never heard of!” He laughed, slapped my shoulder again. The fat bartender gave me a look to say I’d better keep the old man under control.
Grandpa Jerry tapped the bar with his index finger. “To good times,” he said. He picked up his glass and waved it around as if the room were full of dancing girls and happy drunks. But the only other customer was a tired trucker with a tattooed neck.”
“Another bourbon!” Grandpa Jerry said, and he turned to me. “So, friend, what’s your game?”
* * *
It was late, past eleven, when I helped Grandpa Jerry out of my car and guided him up the driveway to my parents’ house. A taxi pulled up along the street. My mother got out, paid the driver, walked over to us. “Well, well, well,” she said. “Have you two been out on the town?”
“Alexandra!” Grandpa Jerry said. “I want you to meet my new friend.” He whispered to me: “What’s your name again, soldier?”
“We’ve met,” my mother said. “How’s it going, Ricky?”
“Well, meet him again!” Grandpa Jerry turned and introduced me to my mother. “This is my daughter, Alex. She’s a doctor of some sort, and she thinks she’s a man.”
I shook my mother’s hand, which was as big and strong as mine, but she didn’t squeeze. In fact, she didn’t do much besides flash her triumphant smile and tell us how great it was to see her father and son together in her front yard, no matter the hour. She laughed about how she’d get an earful from Mom for coming home so late. And she walked into the house, arm in arm with Grandpa Jerry, as if she and he had been the drinking buddies.
* * *
Summer cantered along until August, when I found Carolyn at the bookshop, sitting on the floor in Eastern Religions, chewing on her lower lip. She had on jeans and a white sweater, and her hair was limp. I asked what was bothering her, and she tried to brush me off. When I pressed, she gave me a kiss and a hug.
I asked if she and Simon were splitting up.
“Oh no,” she said, “nothing like that. We had a long talk, and we decided to start a family.” She shook her head then shut her eyes. “There’s something I haven’t told you about him. Simon is not—he’d kill me for telling you this, but he’s not someone who is physically able to have kids.”
Several seconds passed before I thought to say, “Oh.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This has me all mixed up. I’m happy, though. Really happy.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I mean, it’s none of my business, you know?”
“But it is,” she said.
She had taken off her glasses and was cleaning them by breathing on the lenses and wiping them with the T-shirt under her sweater. “Don’t you worry about the baby,” she said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“All right,” I said. “Let’s try not to panic.”
* * *
Once, I came home from a high school party half drunk and fairly sure I had just lost my virginity. I slipped through the front door, stepped out of my shoes, and headed for the stairs. My mother’s desk lamp gave off the only light in our dark house, so I tiptoed past her open study door. She cleared her throat, told me to come in and have a seat. “Do with this what you will,” she told me, “but it is an irrefutable law of the universe.” She shifted in her seat. Her hand rested, palm down, in the pool of light on the desktop. Her other hand swished a snifter of Scotch and ice. Her eyes were hidden by shadows. “That which we cannot see rules us,” she said. She stared into her drink. “I mean particles, electrons, electromagnetic forces. Secrets. Love. Time. Fear. DNA. What we cannot see controls our lives.” She picked up a pen, pointed it at me. “I know I haven’t given you as much in this life as your Mom, but consider this my gift. And consider it fair warning: No one, nobody, no human being knows what rules us, Rick. We’re all flying blind. Now go to bed.” I reminded her that she had to sleep too. “Oh, I will,” she said. “Just shut the door behind you.”
* * *
In the predawn dark of my apartment, the force that ruled me was a shrieking telephone. I couldn’t see it, but I could sure as hell hear it. I groped around, knocked Carolyn’s water glass to the floor, and finally found the phone under the corner of the bed: “Hello?”
“Get the hell over here,” Grandpa Jerry said. “Storm’s coming and we’ve got rats.”
“OK,” I said. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“Night my ass. Sun’s going down and we’ve got rats.”
He hung up. I rolled over and kissed Carolyn’s cheek.
This was the first and only night Carolyn ever slept at my place. I had invited her dozens of times, and she had always passed. But when I pressed hard and threatened to confront Simon about our affair, she agreed to come over. As I kissed her, my stubble scraped her chin. She didn’t flinch, though. All evening, I had tried to convince her to divorce Simon and move somewhere with me: California, Boston, Costa Rica, anywhere. She refused, though, and told me I’d probably actually get along with Simon if I ever met him. She had fallen asleep during my monologue about my vision for our future together.
I kissed her again, dressed quickly, ate a slice of cold pizza, and wrote a note: “Carolyn, Grandpa Jerry called. I need to make sure he and Mom don’t kill each other. Back soon. You spent one night with me. On to the next and the next and the rest!”
* * *
I found Mom puffing a cigarette in her chair by the living room window. Yellow light seeped through the curtains, making her face look older than usual. Gray hair hung over her shoulders, and a crossword puzzle book sat open in her lap. She asked what I was doing there at that hour. I told her I’d written my number on a cocktail napkin the other night and had given it to Grandpa Jerry. She glanced at her crossword and asked for a seven-letter word for betrayal, starting with P-E-R. I asked her what was in the cardboard box on the floor by the closet. She said it was filled with Grandpa Jerry’s poems.
“Yesterday he packed to move to Chicago,” she said. “Now he’s in the back yard, building a wall with my flagstones.” She waved a hand toward the rear of the house. “He’s supposedly protecting us from rats. I’m telling you, he needs a nursing home.”
* * *
Out on the deck, the breeze smelled of freshly turned dirt. Grandpa Jerry stood at the far end of the yard, beside a wheelbarrow. His crooked body bent over a row of pink flagstones. He had propped the bigger stones against smaller ones, making a short wall that faced a stand of junipers and scrub oaks between the yard and the bluffs. I cleared my throat. “Alexandra?” he said. His shoulders pulled inward, as if the act of looking up strained his neck. His tan coveralls were caked in dirt. He asked if I was his daughter, then told me we had rats out the wazoo but he was building a wall to keep the bastards out.
I invited him to come inside, but he pointed to the sky in the west. “You see those clouds?” he said. “That’s the blackest herd of clouds I’ve ever seen. Know what that means?”
“Hell, yes. And when it rains, the goddamn rats will come for the house. You hear me?” He looked into my eyes and squeezed my right hand. His head trembled, and he waved me toward the wheelbarrow.
I stepped between the handles and lifted.
“Over there,” he said, waving me toward the far end of the wall. I pushed, and he came along with the shovel. At a small stack of stones that had once formed the borders of Mom’s flower garden, Grandpa Jerry dropped to his knees. His fingers hovered over a flagstone still flat in the ground, the last intact piece of the garden path. He wedged the shovel’s scoop under the stone and leaned on the handle. The flagstone rose two inches then dropped. He scratched his arm. “Where is she?”
“My wife, dammit.”
“Grandma Rose? She passed away fourteen years ago.”
“I’m supposed to bring her strawberries.” He rubbed his scalp with his palms then put a hand on my shoulder. “Who are you?”
* * *
I went back to my apartment. Carolyn was gone. A grocery receipt was taped to the fridge with a note written in pencil: “Richard, face facts. I’m married. You’re in college. There’s no future for us. Our time has come and gone. Please just forget you ever met me. I will quit the bookshop. Don’t come to my house. And please don’t bother my husband. He’s a good man, and I love him. I’m sorry. Goodbye.”
I sat with that note for a few minutes, then grabbed the last slice of cold pizza and ate as I drove. “Face facts?” I said to the empty car. “What facts?”
* * *
Carolyn’s front door stood open a few inches. I knocked and, after a while, stepped inside. The house was quiet, so I went down the hall. A toilet flushed as I passed the closed door of the bathroom, so I went into the bedroom to wait for Carolyn. But she was there, sitting with her back to the mirror on the closet door.
When she saw me, she jumped up and started pushing me out of the room.
“Leave,” she said.
“Who’s in the bathroom?” I asked.
“You need to leave.”
“He’s here,” I said, and stood my ground.
Down the hall, the bathroom door opened. I heard squeaks and bumps. Carolyn stopped pushing and sat on the bed with her hands on her knees.
When I turned, I saw Simon in the doorway. For a second I thought he must be terribly short, but he sat in a wheelchair. His legs were thin and bent. His nose looked smaller in person than in the photo, which was now in its proper place on the nightstand.
“What is he doing here?” Simon said.
I started to introduce myself.
“I know who you are,” he said.
“What are you doing home?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I never left.” He smiled at Carolyn, who walked over and stood beside his chair. When she placed her hand on his shoulder, I felt suddenly and inexplicably tender toward him.
“Please leave,” Carolyn told me.
I sat down on the bed. Simon’s face went bright red then faded to pale. Carolyn started to speak, but he cut her off. “I’ll do the talking,” he said. He nodded at me. “I don’t know how you talked my wife into staying at your place last night, but that’s not going to happen again.”
“Believe me,” I said, “things between me and Carolyn are not over.”
“They’re about to be.” He pointed at the closet door. “Open it. Go on.”
I thought I ought to leave before this escalated into some kind of wrestling match on wheels, but he didn’t seem angry. So I went to the closet door and opened it.
At first I saw only lines, angles, and tiny reflections of metal and plastic and convex glass. As the door swung open, the closet’s contents came into the light: various cameras stood on tripods—a camcorder, a 35mm Nikon, what appeared to be an 8mm movie camera like the one my mother used to fiddle with on road trips. A white plastic lawn chair sat behind the tripods, and beside the chair was a small table with a glass of water, a jar of Vaseline, and a sketch pad. Carolyn’s clothes hung to the left of the cameras. Simon’s shirts, pants, and ties hung on the other side. The closet was nearly as big as my apartment.
“You were here every night,” I said.
Simon apologized for any pain the situation might have caused. This was a private thing, he told me, between him and his wife—nothing personal against me. He assured me the pictures would never leave his hands. “But Carolyn and I didn’t anticipate what happened,” he said. “We should have, but we didn’t.”
“And what happened?” I asked.
“She fell in love with you,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
Carolyn did not make eye contact with me. She came around and pushed Simon’s wheelchair toward the bed. He reached down and flipped a brake, and the wheels locked. Carolyn pushed harder, but the chair wouldn’t budge.
“What are you doing?” he said.
She didn’t say anything. She just stood there, staring at the back of his head.
I walked past them and reached under the bed for Carolyn’s plastic tote full of reigns, blinders, bits, and gags. I set the tote on the bed and removed the lid.
“So you knew about all of this?” I said. “All along?”
Simon nodded. “It was kind of my idea,” he said.
Carolyn sat down and sobbed. I felt the summer slipping through my fingers.
* * *
I drove to a park and sat on a bench for a couple hours. I watched children whirling around orange and white playground equipment, hurtling through the air on swings and slides. I lay back and tried to sleep. Sunlight glowed wild red through my eyelids. I took in the shouts, voices, and bird songs. A car door clicked open and shut. A squirrel chattered. A block or two down the road, someone slammed a dumpster lid. Farther away, a train whistle blew. As the sun drifted, leaf shadows flickered over my tired eyes. I wondered why I didn’t feel more angry or ashamed, why the greater portion of my sadness came not from what I had done but from what I had failed to see. The little kids and their mothers cleared out for lunch, and the office workers started showing up: men in ties, with their jackets off; women in navy-blue dresses, carrying brown paper sacks.
I felt hungry, and I got into the car with every intention of going to my apartment. But I drove back to Carolyn and Simon’s house. I parked on the street and tried to work out whether to burn their house down or knock on the door and ask if there was anything I could do to help get ready for the baby.
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