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Are We Undone?

Are We Undone?

Are We Undone? That was the message on the billboard. The man underneath the words on the billboard was smiling like a hyena. Ellison blinked. The man was not only smiling like a hyena but looked like a hyena. The man was dressed in expensive clothing. The billboard was advertising salvation. Ellison turned back to his truck. He had loved it when he had left home that morning; loved the size of it, the red color he had repainted the year before, the way the seats both rode high and let him sink in. But about a mile out of town it had started coughing, and the usual remedy, shifting down and then back up, hadn’t worked, and he had pulled over to the side of the road. That’s when he had encountered the poster. Are We Undone? Ellison had spent the night before watching television with his wife. He loved her. He did not love her. His joke was to catch himself at a certain time of day and ask. He was not sure that this was a joke. Rather, it was a diagnosis that did not seek out a cure. Maybe that was the definition of a joke. He and his wife had watched a mystery show. They had eaten some leftovers. They had made love (her words) and then dredged the lake again (his). After she had gone to sleep, he stayed up late, watching a comedy show and talking to his girlfriend on the telephone. She was not really his girlfriend. She was an ex from long ago. They had nothing sketchy going on. They were business partners now in a development out by the water. But both of them kept the memory of the once-was, and it put a little color into what would have otherwise been a drab conversation. Most of the color was on his side, where he found himself constantly furious at the idea that other men were dredging the lake with her. Or was it dredging her lake? More than once as a joke he had announced that he meant to kill any man who spent the night with her. She usually called him her hero and laughed it off. That night after he watched the comedy show she had told him that there were some issues with the rebar delivery, and he promised that he would go out to look at it the next morning. He had then joined his wife in bed and woken to an empty bed and the scent of coffee. His wife had asked him if he had a good phone call the night before. She knew everything. She did not even do him the courtesy of jealousy. She left the house before him. She kissed him on the cheek. She knew nothing. Are We Undone? He dressed and redressed several times before heading out. He was not sure what image he wanted to project. Was he the money man with a good sense of how construction was supposed to go? Was he a longtime contractor who had come into an inheritance that allowed him to shift into development? He went for something anonymous. He was a generic. He was simply a human intelligence auditing the delivery of the rebar. He hopped in his truck and turned the radio to music. Are We Undone? The music at first was jazz, something from the middle of the century, fingers landing like birds on the keys and then taking off again. As he passed downtown it changed to grinding industrial sounds, a guitar and skronking sax. As he passed the office park where his wife worked it changed to soul music from his youth. As he neared the lake it changed to classical. Was it Debussy? About a mile from the lake his truck began to experience symptoms of illness. He pulled over, right beneath the billboard of the man who was a hyena. Are We Undone? He had dreamed of hyenas more than once. Those dreams were nightmares. They were approaching him hungrily which meant in his mind that he was already dead. Scavengers would not have come for him if he was alive. Scavengers were coming always for his ex-girlfriend. He had woken from one of those dreams and rushed to the encyclopedia to see whether hyenas were solely scavengers or also predators. He wanted a fighting chance, even in his dreams. He looked at his watch. The man was probably already there at the lake, already unloading low-grade rebar. His ex-girlfriend was anticipating the moment when they would recognize that they had been ripped off. He would strangle them all. He kicked his truck. He cursed its red paint. He turned the radio up as loud as it could go. It was gospel now, meant to give him hope, same as the billboard. But it only gave him a headache, same as the billboard. He spat upward at the hyena, under no illusion he would reach it, content to watch his best shot fall harmlessly into the brown grass at his feet.

The Dumbest Man in the Art Gallery

Andy Manifold stood outside the modern facade of the Secure Gallery, its sleek lines reflecting back the morning light. He had gotten there early. He had woken to an alarm. Every few moments, his hand reached out, grabbing the door handle and pulling it towards him. The door resisted. The gallery didn’t want him. Each pull took more out of him than he thought he had. There was one painting inside the Secure that he longed to see, “Their Will,” a diptych by the British realist Alison Lightstone. It wasn’t just the reputation of the canvas (“A jumbo shot of jazzy jouissance,” wrote the critic Gerald Pepper) that recommended it to Andy. No, it was the fact that Alison was his ex-wife. The painting was said to be her crowning achievement, better than the River Portraits, better than the Yancey Altarpiece, and from what he had read of it (predominantly blue palette, a ravening dog in the foreground) Andy believed it was a reflection of their tumultuous relationship. Andy’s thoughts spiraled down into memory: the shared mornings at the kitchen table, the nights of endless conversations in bed, her refusal to use hot water when they showered together. She had left him in March with a note and a doodle of a fire stamped out by a boot. Ardor extinguished, he lost his nerve. This painting was his last tether to her, and he felt as though he needed to stand before it to set his life back on track. But each pull at the door handle was more frustrating than the last. Just as desolation washed over Andy, a high-pitched voice pierced his thoughts. A girl no more than ten stood next to him, wearing a “My Mom for President” shirt. “Push!” she said, pointing at the door. Andy pushed at the door of the Secure, which yielded immediately. Her mom for president, he thought, mentally casting his vote.

Machine Learning

Sparkstone Auditorium was filled to the last seat for the Great Friend lecture series, held on the sixteenth of each month. A lone figure took the stage. Nate. He wore oversize glasses that could be seen from the final row. The topic of his talk, “The Problem with Life,” was projected on a mist that rose from the floor. “Good day,” Nate began. “Good day?” He released the first line of his prepared speech out into the crowd: “Life: not long enough to be satisfying or short enough to be painless.” Uneasy chuckles rippled through the audience. Nate had delivered this lecture countless times in halls across the country, in New York and California; Florida and Arizona; Bolt, Nebraska and Brisk Falls, New Hampshire. But today’s talk was unlike any other. From the corner of his eye, he caught a familiar face—Sara. She was sitting in the front row. Sara had been his best friend and then they had been more than friends, thanks to a bottle of wine and some honest conversation. Sara was the lead actress of a television show called Track and Trail, a drama about a special police unit that tracked fugitives. Nate had never seen the show, which filled him with envy. In his youth he had been an actor as well. That was how they had met. Nate had starred in a pilot called Erratic, about a brilliant but unstable detective. On the day that his pilot wasn’t picked up and Track and Trail was, Nate and Sara had a lunch plan. Nate didn’t make it: didn’t call, didn’t text, just didn’t make it. Sara forgave him immediately, but Nate never forgave himself. His pettiness consumed him. How could he have been so cruel? As penance, Nate had dated a woman who looked like Sara, married her, had a daughter who he imagined was the daughter he would have had with Sara. The marriage didn’t last. “Did you ever love me?” he wife said. Track and Trail was perennially in the Top Ten. Nate traveled from Bolt to Brisk Falls, calling his daughter when he could. “Life,” Nate said, gathering his strength for the second line of his speech, “is a machine we can’t see inside of, but that we are continually called upon to repair nonetheless.”


Marcus and Elba went on the World Wheel, the new Ferris Wheel in Cabinot Park. The World Wheel, four hundred feet tall, was the largest structure in the place. “It’s the hillbilly Empire State Building,” said Elba’s father, who wore University of Kentucky baseball caps and talked more about chaw than China, was in fact a particle physicist. When Elba’s father first mentioned the World Wheel, Marcus had flinched visibly. Elba frowned. Elba was all about the rims of canyons, Great and otherwise, while Marcus felt sick on the fourth floor of an office building. Elba was all about heli-skiing and motorcycles, while Marcus liked to complain that her waterbed was too fast. Elba frowned and then went to work on Marcus. It took some persuading but she extracted a promise that they would visit Cabinot and then, once there, that they would at least wait in line for the World Wheel. “If we get to the front and you don’t want to go, we don’t have to go,” Elba said. Marcus turned as pale as the shirt that he was wearing but held his tongue as they reached the front of the line and stepped into the wire cage with a weak smile. Up they went, over the haunted house, over the roller coaster, over the tall trees that bordered the park. The city was visible in the distance. “You can see the earth curving,” Elba said, though she knew it wasn’t true. As they reached the top, the World Wheel jolted to a stop. Marcus clamped his hands down on the safety bar. “Oh,” he said. “Isn’t this magnificent?” said Elba, grinning and shifting her weight so the car tilted. “I can see the other riders,” she said. “Hello!” Marcus’s weak smile had fainted full away. Elba turned back toward him and unbuttoned the top button of her blouse, and then the second, and then the third. “Give me your hand,” she said. She unhooked her skirt next. “Pay attention to this,” she said. “It’ll help you forget about the Wheel.” Marcus did what she said. He usually did what she said. In a few minutes he had forgotten much of the Wheel, though he was careful to keep the two of them in the middle of the bench so the cab didn’t tilt too far in either direction. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” Elba said. Marcus closed his eyes and screwed up his courage. “Elba,” he said, “will you move in with me?” Elba exhaled in the affirmative. Just then the ride started to move. They came down along the Wheel’s orbit still encircled by both varieties of glow. When they reached the bottom, Marcus excused himself and disappeared into the crowd. Moments later, Elba spied him slipping a twenty to the World Wheel operator. She was confused at first. Was he getting change for a refund? Then it hit her. He had orchestrated the wheel’s stall to advertise his meekness and disarm her for the request he knew was coming. The pleasure she had felt had been real. She was sure of it. And yet, would a queen say that of a checkmate? Marcus was returning to the base of the wheel now. Elba felt her top button, done up now, and loved Marcus more and less.

Imperfections Persist in the Savannah

My enemy was waiting for me underneath one tree. There were others, trees and enemies both, but I was looking forward, and they were off to the side if they were anywhere. You know about the savanna, yes? Grasslands in which trees are spaced far enough apart that there can be no canopy? Maybe you also know the song I wrote in 1967 that brought me fame, “Close to Making (It).” It was about a woman in its verses but the chorus was fully about the savanna: “There can be / No canopy” was the first line of that chorus, a soaring melody propelling it heavenward. I wrote the song. I wrote the lyrics, at least. The melody was provided by Thomas Charles, my “partner in rhyme” (his phrase) and the lead singer of the group we founded together, Reddle Me This (mine). Reddle is a red pigment granted its hue by ochre, which in turn is ferric oxide mixed with clay. We wore all red on stage. You see some of that color in the dirt of the savanna. Am I drifting? Let me reset the scene. My enemy was waiting for me underneath one tree. My enemy was Thomas Charles. He had fallen on hard times since we broke up Reddle Me This. He had lived in the basement of an opera house and eaten sandwiches left over from receptions. He showered at a squash club down the street and told whoever would listen that his name was “Captain Capital.” I approached Thomas only to find him delirious. He was crying. His nose was red. That’s when he pulled a gun and shot at me. He missed by a mile. The bullet skittered over the savanna. He screamed my name and fired his gun again. This time, it found its mark. But I did not double over in pain or feel my universe explode at the speed of lead and copper. No: I was not the intended target. Thomas had, once again, been selfish. He had shot himself and only himself. Now he lay on the ground, making the color of the dirt even more so. I ran to his side and sang the chorus of “Close to Making (It).” Thomas was dead and then some, but I thought I saw the body twitch.

We Trade So Much For Peace of Mind

It was nearly nine o’clock when Gershner got home with the Lonely Climber in the back seat of his car. They had already dragged barrels from where Mon-Jay found them upside-down, rope coiled inside like a set of questions, about a quarter-mile from the house, in what seemed like the dead center of a scrubby meadow none of them knew very well, or was at least enough of a center that no edge was visible from where they stood. Anything more precise did not bear upon the situation. The Lonely Climber was tied to the rack. The barrels were loaded into the bed of Mon-Jay’s truck, which took the lead in the caravan, a second truck behind it, and then a dotted line of nine identical black sedans. Gershner and his wife were in the eighth, and they drove miles upon miles, talking happily of the kids, of the news, of parkland and its putative uses, of their favorite new songs (his was “Rice,” barely a month old, hers “Tricked-Out Rivals,” from a year or so ago), finally permitting one another nostalgia via reminiscence about their wedding. “Whose idea was the brass band?” said Gershner. “Someone in New Orleans, I’m guessing,” said Gershner’s wife. “Maybe a jazzman?” She laughed. What a laugh. She stopped laughing suddenly, clutched at her chest. A bolt of ice pierced Gershner’s brain. How could he lose this wonderful woman, this connoisseur of parks and newish music? But it was no malady. Gershner’s wife had spotted the Lonely Climber flapping loose. She spots it. The present is upon us like a guard dog. She points with her lovely hand, her left (her right is somewhat crabbed in the second and fourth fingers). Gershner applies force to the brake pedal in the fashion of an instructional physics video and shudders to a stop. The other drivers in the caravan get the big idea. Gershner runs back for the Lonely Climber, who is chastened on the roadway, and restores him to his rightful place atop the car. Then he signals to his wife, who signals to Mon-Jay, and off they go, through the nearly purpling evening.