The following is an excerpt from Kelly Link’s contribution to Conjunctions:39.
There was a lull in the conversation. We were down in the basement, sitting around the green felt table. We were holding bottles of warm beer in one hand and our cards in the other. Our cards weren’t great. Looking at each other’s faces, we could see that clearly.
We were tired. It made us more tired to look at each other when we saw we weren’t getting away with anything at all. We didn’t have any secrets.
We hadn’t seen each other for a while and it was clear that we hadn’t changed for the better. We were between jobs or stuck in jobs that we hated. We were having affairs and our wives knew and didn’t care. Some of us were sleeping with each other’s wives. There were things that had gone wrong, and we weren’t sure who to blame.
We had been talking about things that went backwards instead of forwards. Things that managed to do both at the same time. Time travelers. People who weren’t stuck like us. There was that new movie that went backwards, and then Jeff put this music on the stereo where all the lyrics were palindromes. It was something his kid had picked up. His kid, Stan, was a lot cooler than we had ever been. He was always bringing things home, Jeff said, saying, You have got to listen to this. Here, try this. These guys are good.
Stan was the kid who got drugs for the other kids when there was going to be a party. We had tried not to be bothered by this. We trusted our kids and we hoped that they trusted us, that they weren’t too embarrassed by us. We weren’t cool. We were willing to be liked. That would have been enough.
Stan was so very cool that he hadn’t even minded taking care of some of us, the parents of his friends (the friends of his parents), although sometimes we just went through our kids’ drawers, looked under the mattresses. It wasn’t that different from taking Halloween candy out of their Halloween bags, which was something we had also done, when they were younger and went to bed before we did.
Stan wasn’t into that stuff now, though. None of the kids were. They were into music instead.
You couldn’t get this music on CD. That was part of the conceit. It only came on cassette. You played one side, and then on the other side the songs all played backwards and the lyrics went forwards and backwards all over again in one long endless loop. La allah ha llal. Do, oh, oh, do you, oh do, oh, wanna?
Bones was really digging it. “Do you, do you wanna dance, you do, you do,” he said and laughed and tipped his chair back. “Snakey canes. Hula boolah.”
Someone mentioned the restaurant downtown where you were supposed to order your dessert and then you got your dinner.
“I fold,” Ed said. He threw his cards down on the table.
Ed liked to make up games. People paid him to make up games. Back when we had a regular poker night, he was always teaching us a new game and this game would be based on a TV show or some dream he’d had.
“Let’s try something new. I’m going to deal out everything, the whole deck, and then we’ll have to put it all back. We’ll see each other’s hands as we put them down. We’re going for low. And we’ll swap. Yeah, that might work. Something else, like a wild card, but we won’t know what the wild card was, until the very end. We’ll need to play fast—no stopping to think about it—just do what I tell you to do.”
“What’ll we call it?” he said, not a question, but as if we’d asked him, although we hadn’t. He was shuffling the deck, holding the cards close like we might try to take them away. “DNA Hand. Got it?”
“That’s a shitty idea,” Jeff said. It was his basement, his poker table, his beer. So he got to say things like that. You could tell that he thought Ed looked happier than he ought to. He was thinking Ed ought to remember his place in the world, or maybe Ed needed to be reminded what his place was. His new place. Most of us were relieved to see that Ed looked okay. If he didn’t look okay, that was okay too. We understood. Bad things had happened to all of us.
We were contemplating these things and then the tape flips over and starts again.
It’s catchy stuff. We could listen to it all night.
“Now we chant along and summon the Devil,” Bones says. “Always wanted to do that.”
Bones has been drunk for a while now. His hair is standing up and his face is shiny and red. He has a fat stupid smile on his face. We ignore him, which is what he wants. Bones’s wife is just the same, loud and useless. The thing that makes the rest of us sick is that their kids are the nicest, smartest, funniest, best kids. We can’t figure it out. They don’t deserve kids like that.
Brenner asks Ed if he’s found a new place to live. He has.
“Off the highway, down by that Texaco, in the orchards. This guy built a road and built the house right on top of the road. Just, plop, right in the middle of the road. Kind of like he came walking up the road with the house on his back, got tired, and just dropped it.”
“Not very good feng shui,” Pete says.
Pete has read a book. He’s got a theory about picking up women that he’s always sharing with us. He goes to the Barnes & Noble on his lunch hour and hangs around in front of displays of books about houses and decorating, skimming through architecture books. He says it makes you look smart and just domesticated enough. A man looking at pictures of houses is sexy to women.
We’ve never asked if it works for him.
Meanwhile, we know, Pete’s wife is always after him to go up on the roof and gut the drains, reshingle and patch, paint. Pete isn’t really into this. Imaginary houses are sexy. Real ones are work.
He did go buy a mirror at Pottery Barn and hang it up, just inside the front door, because otherwise, he said, evil spirits go rushing up the staircase and into the bedrooms. Getting them out again is tricky.
The way the mirror works is that they start to come in, look in the mirror, and think a devil is already living in the house. So they take off. Devils can look like anyone-salespeople, Latter-day Saints, the people who mow your lawns—even members of your own family. So you have to have a mirror.
Ed says, “Where the house is, is the first weird thing. The second thing is the house. It’s like this team of architects went crazy and sawed two different houses in half and then stitched them back together. Casa Del Guggenstein. The front half is really old—a hundred years old—the other half is aluminum siding.”
“Must have brought down the asking price,” Jeff says.
“Yea,” Ed says. “And the other thing is there are all these doors. One at the front and one at the back and two more on either side, right smack where the aluminum siding starts, these weird, tall, skinny doors, like they’re built for basketball players. Or aliens. “Or palm trees,” Bones says.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “And then one last door, this vestigial door, up in the master bedroom. Not like a door that you walk through, for a closet, or a bathroom. It opens and there’s nothing there. No staircase, no balcony, no point to it. It’s a Tarzan door. Up in the trees. You open it and an owl might fly in. Or a bat. The previous tenant left that door locked—apparently he was afraid of sleepwalking.”
“Fantastic,” Brenner says. “Wake up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom, you could just pee out the side of your house.”
He opens up the last beer and shakes some pepper in it. Brenner has a thing about pepper. He even puts it on ice cream. Pete swears that one time at a party he wandered into Brenner’s bedroom and looked in a drawer in a table beside the bed. He says he found a box of condoms and a pepper mill. When we asked what he was doing in Brenner’s bedroom, he winked and then put his finger to his mouth and zipped his lip.
Brenner has a little pointed goatee. It might look silly on some people, but not on Brenner. The pepper thing sounds silly, maybe, but not even Jeff teases Brenner about it.
“I remember that house, “Alibi says.
We call him Alibi because his wife is always calling to check up on him. She’ll say so was Alec out shooting pool with you the other night, and we’ll say, sure he was, Gloria. The problem is that sometimes Alibi has told her some completely different story and she’s just testing us. But that’s not our problem and that’s not our fault. She never holds it against us and neither does he.
“We used to go up in the orchards at night and have wars. Knock each other down with rotten apples. There were these peacocks. You bought the orchard house?”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “I need to do something about the orchard. All the apples are falling off the trees and then they just rot on the ground. The peacocks eat them and get drunk. There are drunk wasps, too. If you go down there you can see the wasps hurtling around in these loopy lines and the peacocks grab them right out of the air. Little pickled wasp hors d’oeuvres. Everything smells like rotting apples. All night long, I’m dreaming about eating wormy apples.”
For a second, we’re afraid Ed might tell us his dreams. Nothing is worse than someone telling you their dreams.
“So what’s the deal with the peacocks?” Bones says.
“Long story,” Ed says.