It was the summer of theme parties. The Millers started it in
June with line dancing. They found some group from Texas who called
themselves "Get in Line!" and we watched and followed
these sequined wonders stomp through the Achy Breaky and the Mason-Dixon.
Then the Bissels topped them a few weeks later with a psychic
named Francine. She read palms, tarot cards, was even able to
talk to Lena Bissel's great-grandfather, but like so many spiritualists,
she had no sense of humor and no patience and did not appreciate
Chuck Hubert's zombie walk. Soon after that the Makendricks transformed
their annual July Fourth pool party into what would have been
a spectacular kite party had there been any wind. Laura Makendrick
broke into very public tears. And eventually Zoe and I made a
stab at it. We concocted a "Foods of the World" party
which quickly turned into a "Drinks of the World" party.
Once again Chuck Hubert performed his zombie walk-a few people
always seem to egg him on-and a table was broken, certainly no
antique. I don't know if it was because we were all bored that
summer and needed something new. Normal costume parties felt passé,
decadent, like Marie Antoinette in a tiered, moth-eaten wig. Instead,
there had to be something learned even if it was simply that borscht
does in fact taste like shit and a healthy supply of rum can save
almost any party.
Tonight belonged to the Greers, Bill and Tammy. In the circle
of our acquaintances they dwell in the third ring: the friends
of friends with money. Lots of money. I sat downstairs on the
couch and waited for Zoe to get ready. We were running late but
I didn't care. An awful rumor had spread that there would be no
alcohol served, something about false courage and a numbing of
the brain. Yes, I thought, it'll do that to you. Thank God. So
I was having a drink which quickly turned into a series of drinks,
all lit with gin. That summer I was drinking gin. But I wasn't
The television was on and my five year-old son was propped a few
feet from the screen. Static raised his fine blond hair. The beginning
of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was playing on the VCR. Ray
loved it. I knew because he had his hands jammed down his elastic
pants and he mumbled something about cars-"Vroom, Vroom"-and
squeezed his groin like a toy horn. It had happened in May that
he discovered the first joy of the pleasure principle. We tried
to thwart him by continually slapping him on the wrist and looking
angry and pointing a finger to the ever-watchful sky, but he still
carried on, our little boner boy. And nowhere was off-limits.
Restaurants. Birthday parties. He could pin the tail on the donkey
with one hand. For a while we considered building a cardboard
skirt, like the kind that prevents dogs from scratching their
recently pinned ears, but instead we used it as a gag around shocked
friends. It seemed to put them at ease.
"He'll grow into it," I told the nervous baby-sitter.
She was sitting on the edge of a chair, her knapsack still hugging
her shoulders. Her name was Gwen, and she had a large head and
a large nose and I wondered if the kids at school were merciless
towards her. Sombrero face.
She giggled. I thought of following up with a joke about Dick
Van Dyke, but I didn't know if she'd even know who Dick Van Dyke
was, and I didn't want her to just hear the words dick and
dyke. So I offered her a soft drink instead.
"No, thanks. I'm fine." She also had a bad complexion.
I figured baby-sitting was a relief to her on Saturday nights.
"We won't be late," I told her.
"That's fine. I mean, it doesn't matter." She shrugged
her knapsack. "I have lots of work." And she smiled
without showing her teeth. I thought the worst: braces and receding
"And he's easy," I said, gesturing towards Ray. "After
this, another video, and if he's still awake after that, pop in
another." I went over to the folding table that acts as our
bar and made myself another drink. "He's seen them all a
hundred times, but still . . ."
There was silence except for the TV and Truly Scrumptious singing
her eponymous song. It seemed to fill the entire room. I sat back
down and waited. I could hear Zoe's steps on the floor above.
I didn't want to rush her. She was always feeling rushed. With
the awkward teenager, the child, the drink in my hand, I had that
familiar feeling that I was waiting at an airport lounge for a
late plane, and the more I waited the more I became convinced
that the plane would crash over Ohio or skid into the ocean and
that this drink would be my last drink and that this moment would
be my last memory of the things that littered the ground. I knew
it was just the gin. Over my son's shoulders Truly swung back
and forth, her gossamer veil fluttering behind her, and as she
smiled and sang, and sang and smiled, I waited for a large bird
to swoop down with razor-sharp claws.
Soon Zoe came downstairs and I was relieved to see her. She gave
me an expression of exasperation. "Sorry I'm late."
"No problem," I said. I lifted my glass to show her
that I was taking advantage of the lag time.
She turned to the baby-sitter. "You must be Gwen."
The baby-sitter stood up. "Yes, hello, Mrs. Scott."
"Well." Zoe's hands dropped lifelessly to her side and
she took a deep breath. She was beautiful, tanned from the summer,
and her hair had recovered some of its youthful blondness. "Just
put him to bed when he gets tired. He's had dinner but if he gets
hungry give him a fruit roll-up. They're in the cupboard."
I used to love to watch Zoe think. Her eyes have these attractive
pouches and when she thinks it seems like she's searching them.
"Oh, and the Greers' phone number is by the kitchen phone,
along with the emergency numbers."
All during this time the baby-sitter was nodding her huge head.
"Got it," she said.
Zoe turned to me. "Okay, we're off." She walked over
to Ray and slumped her knees against his back. "Ray, we're
going," she said in a louder voice.
"We'll be back in just a little bit." I knew that Zoe
wanted a child that would cry at such moments, that would wrap
his helpless arms around her and wail terribly, but Ray just sat
there, hands down his pants, watching a stupid car that could
I ruffled his hair and said, "Have a good time." As
Zoe made her way to the front door, I topped off my drink and
took it with me. "Bye now," I said again, a bit awkwardly.
The Greers don't live very far away but they live just far enough
away so that we know we don't live in the truly nice neighborhood.
"You know they're not serving any booze," I said.
"They've got more money than anyone and they're not serving
booze. That just doesn't seem right. There's no heavy machinery
involved." Zoe was quiet and looked like a weightlifter before
attempting a clean and jerk. I wouldn't have been surprised to
see chalk on her hands. "You all right?"
"I'm not in the mood for a party tonight," she said.
"I hear you. Especially a party without booze." The
sky had a grenadine glow. A volcano had erupted on some distant
island in the Philippines. A whole town was destroyed, fifty-seven
people died, but it made every sunset that summer seem straight
out of Hollywood.
"They have a surprise in store." Zoe pushed down the
visor and checked her makeup in the pop-up vanity mirror. She
wiped at the corners of her mouth. "I hate surprises,"
"Me too." And while we didn't look at each other as
we passed under tree-lined streets, I knew that there were eyes
on the two of us and that we were somehow talking to those eyes.
A third-party viewer. A witness. "Surprises are for suckers,"
I said. Salt air filled the car; the ocean was close. The houses
and front lawns grew progressively bigger. I rolled down the window
so that the rushing wind could blow through the stillness.
She paused for a second. I thought she was going to say something
that would force me to pull the car over and face her. At that
time there was no melodrama in our life, no affairs, no money
problems, no addictions, and we still thought that the people
on daytime talk shows were freaks. But we were bored.
"What?" I said again.
Zoe reached over and clicked on the radio. The volume was too
high but neither one of us bothered to turn it down. I didn't
drive any faster, just a flat thirty-five mph.
The Greers' driveway was filled with cars and edged with standing
torches. Mature trees were tastefully lit with spotlights. We
had to park on the street along with a few other late arrivals,
and then we followed the bending line of torches. The house was
large, white with black shutters. During Christmas they placed
an electric candle in each window. It was quite dramatic. And
during Easter they had a huge Easter egg hunt. They put a hundred
bucks in the big egg. Kids would sprint and dive into bushes.
But Ray was hopeless. He'd just eat the first chocolate bunny
he came across.
"How do I look?" Zoe asked me.
From behind the house a noise sounded. It wasn't a party noise,
that mingling of chitchat, music, and laughter. It was more like
an angry swarm of mosquitoes. Or worse yet, a solitary two-hundred-and-fifty-pound
mosquito. Mosquito-man. My mind tripped onto a late night movie
I had recently seen-The Island of Dr. Moreau-and I remembered
those failed genetic experiments. Boar-man. Weasel-man. Orangutan-man.
They terrorized a bare-chested Michael York. And as awful as they
were, I wanted them to catch him and rip his body into pretty
"Take my hand," I said to Zoe.
We circled around some bushes, a bit of mulch, a birdbath, and
then walked through a gate which opened onto a beautiful back
lawn-almost an acre and a half of perfect grass-and off to the
side, huddled in a circle, our group of friends hummed a perfect
C. Their heads were lowered; their arms were intertwined. Just
behind them a fifteen-foot stretch of coals glowed hot. It was
a strange pep rally.
"Are we playing State tomorrow?" I whispered to Zoe.
"Maybe it's a barbecue."
We stood still and no one noticed us. No one said, Hey it's the
Scotts. No one offered us drinks or cheese puffs. The circle was
closed and we didn't want to be one of those pushy couples. Besides,
we were late, we had no rights. So we just watched as the hum
slowly grew around them. A neighbor's dog howled.
"What is this?" I whispered to Zoe.
"I have no idea."
The hum then reached a breathless pitch, and faces and arms slowly
lifted up towards the sky. They looked like chanting refugees
waiting for the helicopters to drop down food. I recognized them
all. Finally, it ended with a lung-emptying Ah, and people
cheered and smiled and one man, a tall guy in a shiny suit, said,
"Did you feel the power?" Everyone nodded. "Yes?"
He looked around the group. "Well, that's the power of positive
thinking." He made a point of training his eyes on each and
every person. "That's the power you hold trapped within your
body." He fisted his hands. "The power you never let
out." Raised his finger. "Why?" Paused. "Because
Still no one noticed us. Attention was focused on this man. He
had a manufactured face, smooth and with only a few lines to delineate
a mouth, a nose, eyes. His voice was a personal whisper spoken
to a crowd. I was sure he had a set of self-help videos in the
trunk of his car. Maybe an infomercial in the works. "Fear,"
he continued, "is what we have to overcome. Most of us are
still children. We are afraid of the dark, afraid of the
unknown, afraid to succeed. Why? Because if we try to succeed,
if we put ourselves on the line, we can fail." I tried to
catch the eyes of a few friends by making quick faces, but no
eyebrows raised in recognition.
"Maybe these are the Stepford friends," I said to my
"You know, robots."
"Now." The man clapped his hands. It was like a hypnotist
breaking a trance. "I see some new guests have arrived."
He gestured towards us like a game-show hostess displaying a brand
new washer and dryer. "So I think it's a good time for a
break. But remember, let's psych each other up. We're part of
a team." And then, with surprising quickness, he left the
group and came over to us. "Hi," he said. "I'm
"I'm Zoe Scott, and this is my husband Mal."
We shook hands. He had a pinky ring. A family seal. I hate pinky
rings. He also had an expensive gold watch that hung loosely
from his wrist.
"Well, are the two of you ready?" he asked.
"For what?" I said.
He grasped our forearms. "To change your life. To become
who you want to be."
I smiled. "A baseball player? Sure."
I could tell by the way Zoe looked at me that she wanted to hit
me on the arm, but instead she quickly pushed her voice over mine.
"Why not," she said. I was a little put-off by her enthusiasm.
We used to laugh at our born-again friends.
"Great, Zoe. You have to align your belief system so that
you get what you want."
"Even if it's a bigger house? A Porsche," I said.
"Sure, if that's what you want."
"How Eighties," I said.
"No Mal, it's about what you want." He poked the air
in front of my chest. "What's in here." He glanced over
our shoulders. "Now, I've got to check on things. I'll see
you in a few." And he walked away.
I turned to Zoe. "And that night, Malachi Scott learned how
"Don't be such a cynic."
I grabbed Zoe by the arms. "Did they get to you too?"
I made a plea to the heavens. "You bastards!"
"Jesus, how drunk are you?"
"Not enough for this crap."
"You're going to make a great bitter old man."
"It's the gin. But thanks anyway."
Zoe used to like this kind of banter, thought it was smart and
urbane and so round-table, but now she turned away and made a
disparaging sigh. "So clever," she said.
The circle had broken up and smaller groups formed. Bill and Tammy
Greer saw us and waved and came over. Nervous enthusiasm creased
their athletic faces. He was of Norwegian descent. She was of
Finnish descent. They both wore the same shade of blue.
"Hey, you guys," Tammy said.
We apologized for being late, then I gave Tammy a kiss and Zoe
gave Bill a kiss and Tammy gave Zoe a kiss and Bill shook my hand.
After that, we had little to say.
"So," I said. "What's going on here? A barbecue?
A little luau?" I swung my hips.
"No, no," Bill said. He shook his head. "Something
a lot more . . . powerful."
"Okay," I said. "Powerful."
"Yep." Bill turned toward the burning coals. A man in
asbestos boots was spreading them with a long metal rake. "We're
going to walk across those coals." He spoke like a man with
a crazy dream.
Tammy curled her arm around Bill and gave him a squeeze. They
were terminally in love: If one died, the other would soon follow.
"And we'll never be the same," she said.
"That's what I've gathered," I said.
Bill gave us a spirited thumbs-up sign. "And we can do it.
We really can."
"Together," Tammy said. "And with Robert. Isn't
he the greatest?"
Zoe nodded. "He seems very motivational."
To show my solidarity in the world of backyard adventure I took
Zoe's hand. We were like the suckerfish on the belly of a large
predatory shark. "Super," I said.
"He's very well regarded," Bill said. "In his field."
Tammy giggled. She was sweating. It wasn't dainty sweat. She needed
a towel. "And we can do it. I know we can." I could
see the old Wisconsin cheerleader surfacing.
"We can," Bill agreed.
And then Bill and Tammy hugged us. A great big hug. Their skin
smelled of apricots and the beach, with a trace of smoke mixed
in, and while at first I thought the whole thing absurd and silly,
I soon found my head resting on Bill's shoulder and my arm wrapped
tightly around Tammy's waist.
Eventually we separated and they left us for another couple that
wasn't mixing properly. "Walk on coals?" I said to
"I'll put on a silly hat. I'll run wildly with a hopeless
kite. But hot coals. That's beyond the call. I don't remember
Martha Stewart mentioning any hot-coal-and-canapé party."
And-thank God-Zoe smiled, and for that moment found me amusing
again. "You're the worst."
We decided to separate because we hate couples who cling, so she
went off in one direction and I went over to Phil Bissel and Chuck
Hubert. They were lingering by the coals. They both looked defeated.
"No drinks, Mal," Chuck said.
"I can't believe they expect me to walk on fire sober. I
mean, with a few drinks, maybe." Chuck reached down and ripped
up a clump of grass. "I've done worse." From his palm
he picked out single blades and dropped them to the ground. "And
no food either."
"What?" I said.
"Nope. We can't eat until we've done the firewalk."
"Bribery," Phil said. He was a fat man who milked his
baldness for humor. "There's no way I'm doing it."
"They have champagne when we finish. The good stuff."
Chuck grinned. "I might make a sprint for it now." He
made a cartoon gesture of running-left leg raised, elbow bent.
"Hold me back!"
I stared at the coal bed. It had a mesmerizing effect. I pictured
a buried city beneath it. Everything laid to waste and eventually
covered in ash. "It's a shame to ruin such a nice lawn,"
Chuck spat onto the coals. "Oh, you think our man Bill wouldn't
think that through. See those stakes?" He pointed. "That's
where the pool is going."
"Yep, Bill's putting in a pool, has the contractor and everything,
and these coals are in the deep end."
Phil threw an ice cube on the coals. "I don't know what he's
thinking," he said. "There's just no chance."
Herb Frankel came over and mimed golf swings. "Boys been
He patted me on the back. "How're things? Work all right?"
"Fine." They all knew my job wasn't going well, but
some people, like Herb, pretended to empathize, while others just
pretended everything was fine.
"It's a tough market. No rhyme or reason. Have to sweat it
out." The glow from the coals made it look like Herb's face
was wrapped in red saran wrap. I imagined him suffocating. "You
going to do this shit?"
"I can't imagine."
"How about you, Chuck? A little zombie walk across the coals."
Chuck's face turned sheepish. He always regretted his drunken
performances. "I don't think so." Then he lifted his
glass of soft drink. "No booze."
I tried to spot Zoe, but I couldn't find her. The sun was down
and the night was here and the coals now looked like a very cheap
hell that housed very cheap souls. More people came over-the Vollopes
and the Burnhams, two couples who always vacationed together;
and Leslie Pomeroy, heavily medicated on a new antidepressant.
She threw an espadrille onto the coals. It burned quickly, and
we all watched.
The man in the asbestos boots came over and warned people not
to disturb his spread. "It's essential that it stays pure."
"Are they just briquettes?" someone asked.
"No. We get this stuff from Hawaii."
People were impressed.
I was drinking 7-Up with three wedges of lime, but it didn't fool
me. Nothing fooled me. At that moment I knew the ending to every
mystery novel, and all the people around me were stupid. These
are moods I get in, most often when I'm in a car. No one knows
how to drive except me. But standing next to those coals, their
bloom shimmering against faces, I saw each person as an old man
and an old woman and I saw them alone and waiting and still cold
by the fire. I guess it was the gin. I should never drink on an
Zoe appeared at my side. She was holding a Coke. "It's happening
soon," she said.
"Tammy wants everyone by the coals. She's ringing a dinner
"I wish Ray was sick," I said suddenly.
"Huh?" She had a look of disgust on her face.
"Not sick sick, not dying sick. God no. Just sick enough
so that we had to stay home."
"Please. Don't get this way." Zoe slipped off her shoes.
She has tiny feet, and I'm always glad that she never paints her
Bill and Tammy Greer walked over with Robert Porterhouse. Bill
cleared his throat in a stagy way and everyone hushed. "Well,
okay, great. It's great having everyone here, just great. I'm
so glad you're all here. Yes. Anyway, it's going to be an exciting
night. A bit scary." He chuckled nervously. "But, it
could be really special. Now I'm going to turn it over to Robert.
So, here's Robert."
Some people applauded.
Robert Porterhouse loosened his tie. He took off his jacket and
rolled up his sleeves. He smiled a let's-get-down-to-business
smile. I was starving. The coals made me think of the simple cookouts
we used to have. He gathered us into a tighter circle-it was like
camp-and he told us the story of his life.
"My first memory was of fear. The bogeyman. He was an old
man with sharp teeth and long dirty fingernails and he was hungry
for children. He used to live under my bed. Whenever I wet the
sheets-and I did quite often-I would tell my mother that it was
the bogeyman. He made it impossible for me to go to the bathroom.
Why? Because he would've grabbed my ankles and dragged me under.
As basic as that. It's that fear that stops us from doing what
we really want to do."
I looked around the group and wanted to nudge a few people and
make loopy gestures at my head.
"So," he continued, "how do we get over this bogeyman
that lives inside of us? Do we turn on the lamp and check under
the mattress? Does that solve the problem? No, because we all
know that the bogeyman can't be seen in the light. Only in darkness.
That's when you see his glowing red eyes and you smell his rotten
breath. Sure." He put his hands in his pockets and paced.
"I know what you're saying: those are kids' fears, and, of
course, as adults, we grow out of such fears." He let the
word linger in the air. I felt on the verge of being startled,
like when you know that the necking couple in a movie is doomed.
"Or do we?" he asked.
The silence lasted even longer this time. Robert knelt down and
ran his fingers through the grass. Then he started confessing.
"I was twenty-three years old. I flunked out of college.
I was a hundred and forty pounds overweight. I had no money. No
job. I could barely get up out of bed. In fact, sometimes I spent
the whole day in bed. Now what kept me there? What brought me
so low? It was fear. I still had that bogeyman under my bed. I
still thought that if I made one step I'd be finished."
Fireworks would have been so much more fun. We could have leaned
against each other and oohed and aahed at the exploding
dandelions and the fluttering snakes.
"How did I break the domination?" He stared at Clare
Worden. She was surprised and she smiled and lifted her hands
as if she were drying nail polish. "Well, something bigger
than me made me take that step," he answered. "It was
1989. And there was an earthquake-a pretty big one-and I'm in
bed." He began to act out the scene. It felt very Native
American. "Suddenly, my whole apartment collapses, the second
floor becomes the first floor. I'm thrown out of bed. I'm in a
T-shirt and underwear. And I have to get out. All the windows
are broken. There's glass everywhere. A ton of it. I also smell
gas. But I still don't move. I'm too scared. And then I hear it,
someone crying for help. Then I hear more people crying for help.
I know I have to do something. So I concentrate on those cries
and I walk and I crawl and I carry those people out of the building.
At that moment my mind was completely focused on the task. And
I kept on repeating to myself, 'Save lives. Save lives.' That
day I took five people out of that building. Most of them were
elderly, helpless. And when it was all over, and I was wrapped
in a blanket and drinking coffee, I didn't have one cut on either
Some peopled sighed in real wonder.
"Is this a miracle?" He shook his head. "Absolutely
not. This is the power of the self. At that moment I overcame
my fear. I took a step, and with that step the bogeyman disappeared.
Now I'm not all that smart. There's nothing 'special' about me.
I've just learned a way to align my belief system so that I get
what I want. I've empowered myself through positive thinking.
Now, I know how this sounds, a whole lot of New Age mumbo jumbo.
But I swear to you, and I hope to show you, that with the mind
focused, with it directed, there's nothing you can't do. Absolutely
And for the next hour he tried to convince us that this was all
true. He had us doing exercises, meditations; we played games
of trust. Everyone reluctantly joined in. We were all gracious
guests. Bill and Tammy orchestrated everything like amphetamined
cruise directors. But the rest of us were becoming grumpier and
grumpier as time wore on. I was dizzy with hunger, and a slight
headache had crept in. I watched Zoe fall into the arms of Jasper
Cunningham. Then he fell into her arms. They giggled. Jasper brushed
aside his too-long hair and tucked it behind his ears. He acted
like a tennis pro. And once again I thought I knew how everything
"The heat from these coals is over twenty-five hundred degrees
Fahrenheit," Robert Porterhouse told us. "Right now
it's hotter than the sun."
"Really?" someone said. I think it was Chuck.
"And we will walk on it without burning ourselves. Right?"
Everyone shouted, "Right!" It was one of the first things
we had learned: interjections empowered.
Then Robert slipped off his loafers, slipped off his socks. The
man with asbestos boots prepared a discreet little first aid station
which no one was meant to notice, but everyone did. Tammy Greer
looked like she was ready to cry. Sweat poured down her face.
"Okay," Robert said. "Here I go." He stared
straight ahead as if his eyes were connected by wire to a distant
object. "Cool moss, cool moss," he said.
We all chanted along with him. "Cool moss, cool moss."
He quickly goose-stepped across the red-hot coals. I was ready
for his feet to catch fire, for his legs to bubble and melt, but
he kept on moving and within seconds, was finished. He let out
a whoop. All of us applauded. He came to the group and showed
us his feet. They were dirty, a bit red, but unblistered. "You
see, that's the power of positive thinking." He was talking
excitedly. "Your mind can do anything."
People smiled. They nodded their heads. There was exhilaration
in the air, a sense of the possible. But no one followed his example.
Everyone just lingered around the coals. It was like a classroom
of kids who don't know the answer to an easy question. Even Bill
and Tammy had lost their eagerness. Some excused themselves to
go to the bathroom.
Robert Porterhouse walked across the coals again. Once again everyone
cheered, once again he showed off his unscathed feet. "That's
The third time he did it people barely noticed. I was standing
with Zoe and Jasper. "This is pitiful," Jasper said.
"I mean," he continued, "just pitiful."
Robert was clapping his hands, patting people on the back. His
face was desperate. It was like he was seeing the bogeyman's red
eyes. "We can do it."
Herb Frankel laughed.
Someone said, "No, you can do it."
More people laughed.
Then I slipped off my cheap shoes-I wasn't wearing socks-and started
across the coals, a glass of flat 7-Up in my hand. There was silence.
No one said, "Cool moss, cool moss." A plane flew overhead
and I wondered if they could see me. My feet felt the heat in
little pricks, like walking across hot gravel, but I just pretended
that Bill and Tammy's pool had been put in, and it was a pool
party instead of a hot-coal party and I was in the deep end treading
towards the floating lounge chair in the shallow end. Before I
began I was finished.
Robert ran over and hugged me. "Yes. There it is." His
face was all relief.
"And how are your feet?"
"Fine," I said. I lifted them up. They were covered
Robert turned to the rest of the group. "See. It can be done."
Chuck Hubert shook my hand. "That's the farthest I've ever
seen someone go for a drink."
"Well," Zoe said. "That was interesting."
Robert stayed close to me. I was his first convert. "Don't
you feel like you could do anything?"
Now that I was his shill, I said a loud "Yes!"
But people weren't convinced. Robert and I both walked across
the coals again. Then we did it hand in hand. Soon, we were skipping.
By that time Tammy was locked in her bathroom, Bill was apologizing,
and everyone was drinking the champagne and eating the caviar,
the toothpick-harpooned shrimp, the sliced ham. Robert packed
up his motivational devices. "Some people just aren't ready,"
he told me.
"Yeah," I said.
"But I'm proud of you, Mal."
"Thanks, Dad." I was well into the champagne. "You're
not a failure either."
"You're not a failure."
"I know that."
When the rum was brought out people cheered. Robert had already
left. He drove an El Dorado. Everyone sat by the coals like it
was a spent bonfire. Bill brought out hot dogs and metal spits
and people started to roast weenies. Chuck Hubert somehow got
ahold of the asbestos boots and started to do his zombie walk
across the coals. There was laughter and applause. Tammy came
back outside. She was smiling. "Oh, that Chuck," she
said. Soon everyone was trying on the boots.
After a while the party started to break up, and Zoe and I left.
The drive home was quicker than the drive there. "How're
your feet?" she asked.
"I still can't believe you did that. Crazy."
I concentrated on the corridor of light and tried to keep the
car within it.
"You of all people," she said.
"Did you have a good time?" I said.
"It was ridiculous."
"Yeah." I didn't even try to make her laugh.
When we got home the TV was on and Gwen was lying on the couch
watching a late-night movie. She quickly got up. I wanted to help
her with that head. "Hi," she said.
"Hey," Zoe said. She leaned against a chair. "Everything
go all right?"
"No problem. A little tears in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,
but otherwise, fine."
"The Child-catcher, right?"
I walked over to the bar and made myself a proper drink. "Poor
Ray hates that guy. 'Children,'" I said in a shrill voice.
"But he was good?" I asked.
Zoe sighed and then abruptly said, as if she was angry at something,
"Well, Mr. Scott will drive you home. I'm bushed. Thanks
a lot." She started to make her way upstairs. "Sorry
we're so late," she said behind her.
Gwen didn't live very far away.
"Did you have a good time?" she asked me.
"It was all right. Same old stuff."
The sporadic oncoming traffic lit up our faces, Gwen face a second
moon and I was in the mood to talk, my adrenaline still flowing.
"My grandmother and grandfather used to live out on this
island in Maine," I began telling her. "A beautiful
spot. Islands all around. And on one of the islands adolescent
children used to get dropped off for three days of survival."
"Take a left," Gwen said.
The headlights, like searchlights, ran by a corner house. I half
expected to see a fleeing convict, his striped prison garb frayed
"Anyway, it was some Outward Bound program." I glanced
towards her. "They were given something like a hook, some
fishing line, five matches and a knife. That was it. With that
they had to make do."
"A right." She was carefully watching the street.
"Well, I used to visit my grandparents during the summer.
It was great. Really nice."
"Sounds it," Gwen said.
"And my grandparents had this sailboat, and we used to sail
around quite a bit."
"Okay," Gwen sagged forward. I thought something might
be wrong. A stomach cramp. "You're going to want to make
a right pretty soon. The next right."
"Got it," I said. "And I remember the three of
us making sandwiches, a ton of them, all neat in their little
bags, and when we got to this survival island my grandfather would
honk the fog horn. Right here?"
I made the turn. I wondered if the people inside could see the
lights dash across their walls. I hoped it didn't wake them up
or put them into a bad dream. "Well, it was unreal."
"No, no. You see, from the woods these kids would come out,
all cut up and covered in bites. They looked miserable. And these
kids would wade into the water, and my grandmother, my grandfather
and myself would toss them sandwiches-ham and cheese, turkey,
roast beef, chicken salad, egg salad, tomato and cheese."
She turned and looked at me. "Neat," she said.
We were still a few streets away. Sprinklers were clicking from
lawns. It's my favorite sound. I reached over and turned off
the headlights. The night sky suddenly appeared.
Gwen didn't say anything. She didn't move. "A left,"
In the darkness, for a moment, things felt present, frozen in
presence. My friends were my friends and my wife was my wife and
my feet did not burn.
I flipped down the turn indicator. It clicked along with the sprinklers