Mile Marker 72 was as far as we made it before we had to call Mickey to tow us back to the Super 8 again. Mickey was our only friend, besides the Autozone, impressed enough to ask how Elmer and me knew so much about fixing cars. What they really meant was, what were a skinny gay Black dude and a stringy white woman of uncertain age doing fixing a car at all? Or what were we doing together in the first place, especially in that town?
It’s because we are rocket scientists, Elmer said.
I’m proud of you, the Autozone said and gave us free matching hats.
We’d met Mickey through AAA but after his third time meeting us at Mile Marker 72, he gave us his personal number so he could make sympathetic noises into the phone. We replaced the cap. We replaced the thermostat. Still, an hour drive up the canyon, climbing through mesquite and cottonwood, desert willow into the sky—goddamn it was beautiful—the van overheated again. We ordered a new radiator, but all the shops were booked a week out, so Mickey towed us to the barren yard of a guy he knew.
When he’s drinking, he’s drinking. But when he’s not drinking, he does fine work, Mickey said. He let the van down and drove away.
Sure, I’ll fix it, the mechanic barely said. He laid his head on the work bench.
When? I asked.
On my schedule. Not yours, he said. He fumbled a hand over to the radio, turned up the volume. I hope Neil Young will remember. He cracked another can. He gazed up at the benevolent curves of Miss October. Elmer and I watched him, but he had stopped moving. Elmer opened his laptop on the front seat of the van.
We’re going to YouTube it, he said. There’s this girl in a coverall. Kind of goth. She has a channel. We put on our matching hats. The mechanic laughed and spit.
The goth girl told us to take off the entire front of the van. We WD-40’d. We saved all the screws and bolts in a white plastic bucket, the nuts and washers in empty to-go cups from the coffee shop. We steel-wooled tiny flecks of rust. We tried not to look at the mechanic who was having a hard time staying on his stool. We tried not to look at the mechanic’s son, who came out of the house in one of those button-down shirts with flames, a goatee, sandals, and socks.
What do you want, Dad, he said. I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation.
Fuck your dissertation, said the mechanic, not raising his head. No one cares about that shit. You need to keep an eye on these two. He swayed his head toward Elmer and me.
They’re your clients, not mine, the son said.
Don’t talk back before I bust your ass, the mechanic said. You’re living in my house, you do what I say. He gagged, recovered. Can’t you see I’m busy.
The son glared at us with all the spite he was not allowed to direct at his father.
What’s your dissertation about, Elmer said.
You wouldn’t understand, the son said. It’s political science. My dad said to ask if you want some water so you don’t sue us.
What we really need, I said, is an impact driver.
My dad’s a great mechanic, the son said.
I didn’t say he wasn’t, I said.
The best there is, he said. No one uses tools around here without they ask him first.
The mechanic’s eyes were closed. He smelled like he’d had an accident. To the wind, the desert, to the rocks and sagebrush, to the empty cans, the bare white ass of Miss October, to the ocotillo if it was there, I asked, Can I borrow an impact driver?
The mechanic opened his eyes. Show me your tits, he said. I showed him my tits. They weren’t nice tits. They were never that big to begin with and now they were wrinkled and deflated, chewed-on and used up long ago by my babies. I took some satisfaction in the way the mechanic winced when he looked at them. He pushed a drill across the bench.
I need an impact driver, not a drill, I said.
You’ll take what I give you, he said. Or you won’t.
I am old enough to be your mother, I said. I was younger than him by a generation. Show me some respect.
The mechanic’s son spoke with great dignity. You have five minutes to get off my father’s property, he said. Or I’m calling the police.
Before I met Elmer, I figured that the friend-making part of my life was over. How do people know other people? You have to date or be siblings, have children together or be neighbors, be drinking buddies or teammates. You have to grow up on the same street, meet in high school, be pen pals, cell mates, colleagues, or comrades. These are the options, and after a while they become dull or impossible. But Elmer did not observe such guidelines. From the time we stood in the same aisle at the pharmacy looking for low-cost, plant-based holistic remedies, he was in my life and I was in his. When I met his family, I felt compelled to reassure them that I did in fact have friends my own age, which was a lie. I didn’t have friends, I had kids. I had a co-parent. I had roaming undiagnosed pain that took up a lot of my time. I had no one who wanted to hear about it.
Elmer’s pain was different from my pain. Elmer never said no. If I wanted to, I could have coffee with him all day long. When I went to the laundromat, he’d tag along to fold. To my kids he’d say, Don’t worry we can get you another one. Our time together was the continuous present of teen friendship, the puppy pile, the rolling hang. Elmer and I were both looking for a cure. It was Elmer told me about ocotillo. Ocotillo did not grow in Ohio, where we lived. It looked like a cactus, but it was not a cactus. It had spines. It had juice, red flowers, you could make a living fence out of it. It had thorns.
That’s what I need, Elmer said. I need thorns. Ocotillo could cure me. It could probably cure you too. It cures a lot of things.
What things, I said.
Achy limbs, Elmer said. Urinary stagnation. Nervous cough. Emotional congestion. Varicose veins. Diffuse anger. Benign growths. Wounded heart. I could go on.
Where does it grow? I asked.
In the desert, he said. Arizona.
Let’s go, I said. While we’re still collecting unemployment.
What about your kids, Elmer said.
They won’t even notice I’m gone, I said.
You never want to be home, Elmer said. You think I’ll go anywhere with you anytime.
When do we leave, he said.
I said goodbye to my kids, but they were busy caring for dead and dying animals, mainly flies. They were running a fly hospital, right there by the front door of the house where the flies collected because of the sun and then died against the glass, kicking their legs.
I love you, the little one whispered to a dead fly.
That one’s dead, the big one said.
No, the little one said. He’s just sleeping.
They could tell all the flies apart and they named them. Boring, predictable names. Fly names. Wing. Speck. Tiny. Buzz. That sort of thing. They weren’t creative but they were persistent. They aimed their love in the wrong direction. I could relate.
The whole way across the country, Elmer said we were like Britney Spears in Crossroads. We kept track of all our questions. We made a big list. We were on the open road with the windows open and loud music playing right up until we weren’t.
What does it really mean to call the cops when everyone here is a cop, Elmer said as we walked along the highway back to the Super 8. Add that to the list of questions.
The sun struck at us, demanding to know why we were there. We picked our way through sagebrush and candy wrappers, Styrofoam food trays, inexplicable wads of hair. Elmer eyed the cacti along the road, but ocotillo was not a cactus, not exactly. Not a succulent either. Ocotillo was something else.
We probably have an hour’s more worth of work on the van, even to get it running, I said. And now it’s held hostage.
The Super 8 faced the plaza, where the sprinklers came on every morning at eight and every evening at nine. The grass stayed green and there were palm trees and benches. There were archways of pink stone. There was a plaque. But no one spent time on the plaza. If you spent time on the plaza you would have to notice things that happened to other people even if those things didn’t happen to you. If you spent time on the plaza you might make eye contact with a neighbor. You might know what they saw. Someone might see you seeing something. You might become a witness. Two white SUVs circled the plaza. They slow-rolled by, and the cops looked out the window at us. Elmer lit a cigarette. We crossed the street to the Super 8. An old lady hurried past us and told Elmer to smoke outside.
Why do white people insist on telling me to do things that I’m already doing, asked Elmer, but I didn’t know the answer to that question either.
Fuck this, Elmer said. Let’s get a frappe.
At the coffee shop next door, the local teens drank iced mochas, wore guns in holsters, T-shirts with all the color schemes signifying different flavors of patriotism. There was a time when red, white, and blue were the colors of the American flag whether people liked it or not. But those three colors were no longer enough. The flag was annexing, claiming more. Black, gray, and blue. White, tan, and stonewashed. Pink, red, and camo. Safety orange, safety yellow, safety green. What defines a flag? How did anyone recognize it anymore? More questions for the list. Meanwhile, the coffee shop had a chalkboard out front that read HEY THERE BREWTIFUL. The font was funky. The barista had half her head shaved. She had a nose ring. Everything was fine.
Salted caramel, Elmer said. Acai berry. White chocolate. Extra whipped cream.
What kind of tats you got under there? The barista asked, pointing at Elmer’s forearms, where his FUCK12 tattoos were covered up with band-aids.
Oh those, he said. They’re faith-based.
Cute, she said. Are you an exchange student?
Yes, Elmer said. He pointed to me. She’s my host family. Actually, I’m looking for a plant that grows around here. Maybe you’ve seen it. Ocotillo. It’s for my health.
Oh sure, the barista said. Ocotillo. It’s like, everywhere. But then she couldn’t tell us where everywhere was.
In our small bitter way, Elmer and I wanted to interrupt the domination, but every day our way seemed smaller and more bitter. We couldn’t even get our van to work. We couldn’t even sit in the plaza. We couldn’t even show our tattoos. We couldn’t even find ocotillo. We couldn’t be sure if the world would be better off without us. I say we, and I don’t know if I mean we. If we found the ocotillo, maybe it would cure us. Maybe Elmer would disentangle himself from the we. He would learn to set boundaries, even with me.
At the Super 8, we lay side by side on the bed while Elmer daintily sipped whipped cream. He turned on the Hallmark channel. Let’s watch people celebrate Christmas again and again, he said. Look, they’re still doing it. It’s still Christmas. Oh shit. Fuck. Look, it’s pretend snowing. Look, none of them are wearing hats. They’re walking around with their coats unzipped. It’s barbaric. They’re pretending to wonder what’s in those shiny boxes. Grown adults don’t care about gifts, he said.
I do, I said. I see that sparkling paper and I get a little rush. I want to know what’s inside.
There’s nothing inside, he said. Those boxes are empty.
I called Mickey. He made sympathetic noises, but he said he couldn’t tow us out of the mechanic’s yard because when the mechanic was in that kind of mood he’d call the cops.
What are the cops going to do? I asked. That mechanic stole our van.
Maybe so, Mickey said. But I have to live in this town.
When I hung up, Elmer was no longer watching TV. He was at the sink, watching a vast population of ants pour out of a crack in the wall. They tracked through the soap and made powder of the paper towels. They colonized the drain. They marched down the wall toward the trash can. Elmer used a towel to wipe the ants away. He turned on the water and washed them down the sink. But they swarmed over his hand and continued as if they had been neither wiped nor flooded.
They don’t give a fuck, Elmer said with admiration. About anything. They go wherever the fuck they want. They know all of this is bullshit.
I’ll talk to Lars, I said.
Lars wished he was racing his huskies in the desert. He kept his kennel in his truck out front where his beautiful dogs stared at you with calm blue eyes. Lars had calm blue eyes too. Lars stood behind the counter in the lobby all day, commenting on everyone who passed the window.
Nice car asshole, he said not to me even though I was the only other person in the lobby. Only an asshole would own a car like that.
I told him about the ant infestation.
I can’t reserve you another room, hon, he said. I can’t even reserve you the same room. Computer’s down.
What can you do?
My ex-wife will not leave me alone, Lars said. I’ve got a race this weekend.
Lars, I said. Do you ever go to the plaza?
The plaza? Lars looked at me for the first time. Hell no, I don’t go to the plaza. No one goes to the fucking plaza.
Outside our room, a kid waited for me, a dark-eyed little kid with shiny hair falling into his face. He wore a pin with a picture of a chipmunk on it. The chipmunk had its mouth open in a snarl of rage, all sharp teeth and beady eyes. The kid was about the age of my kids, but he looked me in the eye the way my kids were too busy to do.
My mom said you have ants in your room, he said.
That’s right, I said.
I want to see, he said.
Inside, Elmer was feeding the ants acai berry syrup through the end of his straw. The kid peered into the ant universe with his hands clasped behind his back.
It’s a good thing my kids aren’t here, I said. They would want to save the ants. For some reason, every time I saw a kid, I was moved to say that I also had kids, even though usually the kid I was talking to couldn’t care less and why should they.
But the ants don’t need saving, the kid said.
Are your sure about that? asked Elmer. I just killed hundreds of them.
Ants are tough, he said. They’re stronger than humans. They can stand up for themselves. Ants know how to get revenge.
The kid’s mother put her head around the door. She pushed her cart into the room, piled high with towels, spray bottles, rags, a spool of plastic garbage bags.
You two should move to the room next door, she said. There’s no ants in there.
Lars said he couldn’t book us, I said.
You really think Lars runs this place, don’t you, she said.
But we don’t have a key, I said.
You’ll figure it out, she said.
Ants question their own knowledge, the kid said. They experience uncertainty. They can breathe underwater. They aren’t exactly separate from each other. They’re like a connected consciousness. If you interrupt them, they will find you and make you pay.
Baby, his mother said. Go ride your bike.
Just don’t go to the plaza, she said.
Elmer and I moved our backpacks, laptop, and six pack of White Claw to the room next door. While Elmer stood outside smoking, I called the fly hospital. A fly named Feeler was healing from a broken leg. For Halloween, the big one wanted to dress up as a person who killed people in order to help people. The little one wanted to dress up as Moana. I wasn’t sure about a four-year-old white boy dressing up as a Polynesian Disney princess. I wasn’t sure if I would be back by Halloween. I wasn’t sure why, when I was home, the pain was so bad I couldn’t get out of bed. I wasn’t sure why, in this shitty town, I was well. When I was home at the fly hospital, I was an invalid. I watched the fly doctors operate on the flies, yet they could do nothing for me. Nothing could make me well but being on the road. Here, my body wasn’t causing me pain. Instead, the body of the van was causing me pain. Here, I could talk to Elmer all day about achy limbs. Benign Growths. Wounded heart. Elmer never said no. At home, I felt trapped. Here, I was actually trapped. But did I want to escape? I didn’t add that to our list of questions. It was unapproachable. It was a sad old dog, chained up, barely fed, unloved, ignored.
Weird, Elmer said, when he came in.
What, I said.
This room, he said. It doesn’t have any number.
You think we’ll get out of here? I asked.
I just want to find some ocotillo first, he said. I’m exhausted. That barista. That white lady. Those teenagers. Lars. I need a living fence around me. When people see me, I want them to know it’s time to turn around and walk away. Present company excluded, he said, seeing my face.
I wanted to find ocotillo too. I needed a cure as bad as Elmer did, maybe worse. But what would happen if we were cured? My limbs would stop aching, my heart would be unwound, my growths would shrink, my anger would no longer be diffuse but would gather itself into a sharp and blazing spear. And Elmer would grow thorns.
But I needed Elmer to stay the way he was. Getting me stoned, then shaking my arm to keep me awake while we watched Eat, Pray, Love so I could keep him company while he cursed at the screen. I thought we had a deal. He didn’t get tired of my pain and I didn’t get tired of his. Boundaries. I thought we were against boundaries. Or borders or whatever. I thought we were against all of that.
That night, we wedged a tennis shoe in the door of our numberless room, and we stayed in the jacuzzi past one, even though it closed at eleven. No one told us not to. One by one, we watched other people towel off. We watched them splat away. We watched Lars lock the pool area. Shit, I said. How are we going to get out of here? Lars, wait, I called, but he didn’t turn around.
It’s like he can’t hear me, I said.
Relax, Elmer said. We’ll climb over the fence.
We stayed in until we were pruney and grumpy, slightly nauseous. We finished the White Claw.
Maybe it’s a good thing we got kicked out of that mechanic’s yard when we did, Elmer said. You were about to get all empowered by that goth girl, I could tell.
I like that goth girl, I said.
Being empowered is like being drunk, Elmer said. It’s a distorted frame of mind. Just because you struggle against the odds and are part of your own photo montage on the back of the Girl Scout cookie box doesn’t mean your struggle adds up to success.
In the morning, I checked my bank balance. I called Mickey. No answer. I called my children. The phone rang and rang, before switching to a recorded message listing the names of all the dead. Wingy the second. Many Eyes. Teddy Antennae.
I propped the door open with the empty White Claw box and went outside. Our old room was open, and I looked in. The ants had progressed. They were all over the bed now, the TV, the carpet. They crawled over the threshold, biting my bare feet. I reared back and almost collided with the shiny haired kid, whirring past me on his bicycle, singing tonelessly. He stood up on his bike, unswerving, passed me like nothing. His mother pushed her cart by.
Thanks for the new room, I ventured. No ants.
Where’s your helmet, she called after her son. I told you to wear a helmet. Baby. But he skidded around the corner, gone.
I woke up Elmer.
I checked my bank, I said. I don’t think they’re charging us to stay here anymore.
Finally some good news, he said.
Yeah, I said. But it’s more than that. I’m starting to feel like I don’t exist.
Is the pain coming back? Elmer asked.
Maybe we passed through a wormhole when we switched rooms I said. A portal or something. A vortex. Maybe we slipped out of the world.
We? Asked Elmer. Or just you?
I hope it’s both of us, I said. I don’t want to be alone.
Elmer brushed his teeth and put on his shoes. Wait here, he said.
He came back with a coffee confection so big he could hardly eat it. Sprinkles on it, drizzled hot fudge. He was smiling.
It’s true, he said. This thing was just sitting there on that little counter where they put the orders. I walked up and took it. No one made me pay. No one even looked at me. You know what this means.
What? I asked.
We can get the van back. He stirred his frappe, looked at it for a moment, then dumped it in the trash.
In the mechanic’s yard, the mechanic and his son faced off in front of the workbench, taking wide swings at each other, some of which connected. There was no blood, but there were tears. Miss October didn’t take sides. I don’t need to say that between the three of them, they didn’t pay Elmer and me any attention.
We slid open the side door of the van, loaded the bumper, the plastic bucket, the to-go cups, the WD-40, the impact driver. Elmer took off his shirt and tucked it into his back pocket. We put on our Autozone hats. I bent my shoulder to the back of the van, but Elmer was looking past me.
Holy shit, he said. Ocotillo.
It grew on the edge of the mechanic’s yard, where the gate opened onto the highway, a gray shrub forcing itself up through the sand and pebbles. The ocotillo was stalky, tall, and dry, a spiny bouquet of sticks aiming toward the raging sky.
Why didn’t we see it before, I said.
We were distracted by those two looking at us, Elmer said. He glanced back at the mechanic and his son, now locked in a soggy embrace. Elmer slid open the door of the van and took out the bucket. He knelt beside the ocotillo. We can transplant it, he said.
We don’t have a shovel, I said.
Elmer felt in his hip pocket. He found two flat wooden spoons from the coffee shop. Compostable.
I dropped to my knees beside him and took a spoon. They didn’t work very well for digging but they weren’t terrible.
I don’t know if ocotillo will survive in Ohio, I said.
Is that where we’re going? he said.
The roots of the ocotillo were wide but not deep. We levered our way beneath them. We lifted the ocotillo into the bucket. We put the bucket into the van. We pushed the van out to the highway.
All the way to the plaza, storm clouds gathered like they didn’t want to be late. We pushed the van to a stop in front of the plaque. I still hadn’t read it. The sprinklers were on. The grass was a bouncy castle. The cops circled, but they didn’t look at us. We brought the goth girl up on the screen. We finished installing the radiator. We reattached the bumper. I was so empowered that I stripped a screw. Elmer fixed it with a zip tie. We bled the system without further incident. When I retrieved our backpacks from the Super 8, I let the door close behind me. I heard it lock. We were ready to go.
Let’s take a picture, Elmer said. With our matching hats. Like Britney would do. He leaned against the van and aimed his phone.
The cops circled again, windows down despite the coming weather. One SUV, then another. Elbow out one window. Head out the other. Looking, always looking.
Let’s just go, I said. I don’t want to get fucked with.
You’re forgetting, Elmer said. We won’t get fucked with.
It was true. The police were looking, but they were looking at someone else. We saw them slow down. Put a hand out. Pull up and stop next to a small person, a kid with no helmet doing wheelies on a bicycle on the other side of the plaza.
That kid isn’t supposed to be on the plaza, I said.
Elmer looked up. Shit, he said. Where’s his mom?
The kid stopped, straddling his bike, holding tight to the handles. The cops got out, two large men with stiff vests, shades, radios that wouldn’t shut up. They bent toward him. He backed up, shook his head.
Hey, I called, above the sound of the sprinklers. Leave that kid alone.
No one heard me.
The kid’s mom came running across the street from the Super 8. A third SUV pulled up, lights flashing. The woman reached her son and pulled him roughly off his bike. She turned to go but the bigger cop moved to block her way.
The barista came outside and changed the chalkboard to read STRESSED BLESSED AND COFFEE OBSESSED. When she saw what was happening on the plaza she went back inside. Mickey’s tow truck clanked by without stopping. Lars passed with his sled dogs on leashes, eight pairs of impassive blue eyes, including Lars. Nice fucking day for it, I heard him whisper to himself. He kept walking.
Elmer put his phone back in his pocket. He put his T-shirt back on. He turned his hat to the side. He opened the door of the van. This is going to take two of us, Elmer said.
Together, we hoisted the bucket with the ocotillo. Leaning away from the spines on either side, we grasped the handle and staggered toward the kid and his mom, the bicycle now lying on the velvet grass, one wheel spinning.
Your son isn’t wearing a helmet, ma’am, the big cop said. Can you show us ID?
I really don’t need this today, the kid’s mom said.
Completely routine, the other cop said. We’re just going to ask you a few questions.
There’s not much you can do, the kid said.
What? The cop said.
Baby, his mom said.
When animals attack, the kid said. He put his hand in his mother’s. Chipmunks for example. Could have rabies. They aren’t social animals, but they act in colonies. They’ll play dead, but in the final analysis they’ll bite and scratch. Toads release a neurotoxin. Horned toads shoot blood out of their eyes.
Get your kid under control, Ma’am, the cop said.
Baby, his mom said. That’s enough. Let me handle this.
Elmer and I drew near enough that we could smell the kid’s yeasty head, his mother’s talcum powder, the aftershave of the police. We set the ocotillo down beside them. We peeled back the grass that should never have been there in the first place. We abandoned our spoons and dug with our hands. We buried the roots in the earth.
But I think my favorite is a tarantula hawk, the kid said. I bet you think that’s a bird or a spider. It’s not. It’s a wasp. Its sting is rated as one of the most painful insect stings of all time. Want to know how it got its name? It paralyzes tarantulas and then it lays its eggs inside them while it feeds on their vital organs. The kid didn’t look at us. He didn’t look at the police. He held his mother’s hand, and he looked straight up into the coming storm.
When the transplant was complete, Elmer wiped his hands on his jeans. He touched the kid’s shoulder. Be careful, Elmer said. This thing has thorns. The kid turned his head and looked at the ocotillo. It began to rain.
Back home my children were tending to the flies, the little one and the big one, tending to each other. Some of us can’t manage scale, some of us have the right heart but the wrong body, have bad aim, low energy. We are uncoordinated, some of us. All of us need a little help We don’t know where our feelings belong, how big or little they should be. We don’t know where it should hurt or how bad or when it’s going to stop. We need help from plants and animals. From minerals. We need all the help we can get. By the time we got back to the van, Elmer and I were soaked. The van started up no problem.
In the rearview mirror I couldn’t see the plaza anymore. But I could see the ocotillo. It’s a plant that can grow over twenty feet high. In the rain, it grew and grew, and it wove itself into a wall. The ocotillo knotted through the spokes of the bike, matted over the words on the plaque, strangled the sprinklers with its thorns. Its red-tipped flowers opened their wide mouths and drank. The fence it became was alive. The kid and his mom were on one side of it. The police must have been on the other, but no one could see the police anymore. We couldn’t see their lights flashing. We couldn’t hear their radios. All we could see was the lightning. All we could hear was the rain. The kid’s mom scooped up her child like he was still a baby even though he was getting so big. She carried her boy back across the street.
We pulled up out of the valley, through the storm, the lightning that made you thankful and afraid. I pushed the van to fifty, fifty-five, sixty, then up past seventy miles per hour. The engine didn’t overheat. We hauled over the mountain. The transmission protested but jumped up, rose to the occasion. We passed Mile Marker 72.
Elmer looked at his phone. What the fuck, he said. The map says this is the end of the highway. It says we have to make a U-Turn up ahead. He showed me the screen, the broad green path a glowing hook.
But look out the window, I said. It doesn’t look like the highway ends.
In half a mile, make a U-Turn, said the map in the voice of a white South African woman.
I don’t want to make a U-turn, I said.
Me neither, Elmer said.
I like you the way you are, I told him.
I like you too, he said.
Is it true that one kind of pain can cure another kind of pain? I asked.
Write that one down, he said.
In .4 miles make a U-turn, the robot voice said.
What are you going to do? asked Elmer. Are you going to make a U-turn?
I don’t know, I said.
In .2 miles, make a U-Turn, the robot said. In .1 miles, make a U-Turn.
Elmer dropped the phone and braced his feet against the dashboard. He covered his face with his hands. The white woman robot yelled at me calmly from the floor of the van. Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn. Eight hundred fifty feet. Five hundred feet. Three hundred feet. One hundred fifty feet. I leaned back, closed my eyes and stepped on the gas.
The white woman went quiet. Elmer took his hands from his eyes. What happened, he said. Are we dead? But I didn’t know the answer to that question, so we added it to the list.