The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Ann Beard from her book, The Boys of My Youth
The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up. She’s staring at me with her head slightly tipped to the side, long nose, gazing eyes, toenails clenched to get a purchase on the wood floor. We used to call her the face of love.
She totters on her broomstick legs into the hallway and over the door sill into the kitchen, makes a sharp left at the refrigerator -careful almost went down – then a straightaway to the door. I sleep on my feet in the cold of the doorway, waiting. Here she comes. Lift her down the two steps. She pees and then stands, Lassie in a ratty coat, gazing out at the yard.
In the porch light the trees shiver, the squirrels turn over in their sleep. The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings. It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.
The dog turns and looks, waits to be carried up the two steps. Inside the house she drops like a shoe onto her blanket, a thud, an adjustment. I’ve climbed back under my covers already but her leg’s stuck underneath her, we can’t get comfortable. I fix the leg, she rolls over and sleeps. Two hours later I wake up and she’s gazing at me in the darkness. The face of love. She wants to go out again. I give her a boost, balance her on her legs. Right on time: 3:40 A.M.
There are squirrels living in the spare bedroom upstairs. Three dogs also live in this house, but they were invited. I keep the door of the spare bedroom shut at all times, because of the squirrels and because that’s where the vanished husband’s belongings are stored. Two of the dogs -the smart little brown mutt and the Labrador – spend hours sitting patiently outside the door, waiting for it to be opened so they can dismantle the squirrels. The collie can no longer make it up the stairs, so she lies at the bottom and snores or stares in an interested manner at the furniture around her.
I can take almost anything at this point. For instance, that my vanished husband is neither here nor there; he’s reduced himself to a troubled voice on the telephone three or four times a day.
Or that the dog at the bottom of the stairs keeps having mild strokes, which cause her to tilt her head inquisitively and also to fall over. She drinks prodigious amounts of water and pees great volumes onto the folded blankets where she sleeps. Each time this happens I stand her up, dry her off, put fresh blankets underneath her, carry the peed-on blankets down to the basement, stuff them into the washer and then into the dryer. By the time I bring them back upstairs they are needed again. The first few times this happened, I found the dog trying to stand up, gazing with frantic concern at her own rear. I praised her and patted her head and gave her treats until she settled down. Now I know whenever it happens, because I hear her tail thumping against the floor in anticipation of reward. In retraining her I’ve somehow retrained myself, bustling cheerfully down to the basement, arms drenched in urine, the task of doing load after load of laundry strangely satisfying. She is Pavlov and I am her dog.
I’m fine about the vanished husband’s boxes stored in the spare bedroom. For now, the boxes and the phone calls convince me that things could turn around at any moment. The boxes are filled with thirteen years of his pack-ratness: statistics textbooks that still harbor an air of desperation; smarmy suit coats from the Goodwill; various old Halloween masks and one giant black paper-mâché thing he made that was supposed to be Elvis’s hair but didn’t turn out. A collection of ancient Rolling Stones T-shirts. You know he’s turning over a new leaf when he leaves the Rolling Stones behind.
What I can’t take is the squirrels. They come alive at night, throwing terrific parties in the spare bedroom, making thumps and crashes. Occasionally a high-pitched squeal is heard amid bumps and the sound of scrabbling toenails. I’ve begun sleeping downstairs, on the blue vinyl dog couch, the sheets slipping off, my skin stuck to the cushions. This is an affront to the two younger dogs, who know the couch belongs to them; as soon as I settle in, they creep up and find their places between my knees and elbows.
I’m on the couch because the dog -on the blanket gets worried at night. During the day she sleeps the cat-nappy sleep of the elderly, but when it gets dark her eyes open and she is agitated, trying to stand whenever I leave the room, settling down only when I’m next to her. We are in this together, the dying game, and I read for hours in the evening with one foot on her back, getting up only to open a new can of beer or take blankets to the basement. At some point I stretch out on the vinyl couch and close my eyes, one hand hanging down, touching her side. By morning the dog arm has become a nerveless club that doesn’t come around until noon. My friends think I’m nuts.
One night, for hours, the dog won’t lie down. I call my office pal, Mary, and wake her up. “I’m weary,” I say, in italics.
Mary listens, sympathetic, on the other end. “Oh my God,” she finally says. “What are you going to do?”
I calm down immediately. “Exactly what I’m doing,” I tell her. The dog finally parks herself with a thump on the stack of damp blankets. She sets her nose down and tips her eyes up to watch me. We all sleep then, for a bit, while the squirrels sort through the boxes overhead and the dog on the blanket keeps nervous watch.
I’ve called in tired to work. It’s mid morning and I’m shuffling around in my long underwear, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. The whole house is bathed in sunlight and the faint odor of used diapers. The dogs are being mild-mannered and charming; I nudge the collie with my foot.
“Wake up and smell zee bacons,” I say. She lifts her nose groggily and falls back asleep. I get ready for the office.
“I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,” I say while putting on my coat. I use my mother’s aggrieved, under-appreciated tone. The little brown dog transfers her gaze from me to the table, the last place she remembers seeing toast. The Labrador, who understands English, begins howling miserably. She wins the toast sweepstakes and is chewing loudly when I leave, the little dog barking ferociously at her.
At the office, there are three blinks on the answering machine, the first from a scientist who speaks very slowly, like a kindergarten teacher, asking about reprints. “What am I, the village idiot?” I ask the room, taking down his number in large backward characters. The second and third blinks are from my husband, the across-town apartment dweller.
The first of his calls makes my heart lurch in a hopeful way. “I have to talk to you right now,” he says grimly. “Where are you? I can never find you.”
“Try calling your own house,” I say to the machine. In his second message he has composed himself.
“I’m fine now,” he says firmly. “Disregard previous message and don’t call me back, please; I have meetings.” Click, dial tone, re-wind.
My leaping heart settles back into its hole in my chest. I say “Damn it” out loud, just as Chris strides into the office.
“What?” he asks defensively. He tries to think if he’s done any thing wrong recently. He checks the table for work; things are in good shape. A graduate student, Gang Lu, stops by to drop off some reports. Chris and I have a genial relationship these days, reading the paper together in the mornings, congratulating our-selves on each issue of the journal. It’s a space-physics monthly, and he’s the editor and I’m the managing editor. I know nothing about the science part; my job is to shepherd the manuscripts through the review process and create a journal out of the acceptable ones.
Christoph Goertz. He’s hip in a professorial, cardigan/jeans kind of way. He’s tall and lanky and white-haired, forty-seven years old, with an elegant trace of accent from his native Germany. He has a great dog, a giant black outlaw named Mica, who runs through the streets of Iowa City at night inspecting garbage cans.
She’s big and friendly but a bad judge of character, and frequently runs right into the arms of the dogcatcher. Chris is always bailing her out.
“They don’t understand dogs,” he says.
I spend more time with Chris than I ever did with my husband. The morning I told him I was being dumped he was genuinely perplexed. “He’s leaving you?” he asked.
Chris was drinking coffee, sitting at his table in front of the blackboard. Behind his head was a chalk drawing of a hip, professorial man holding a coffee cup. It was a collaborative effort; I had drawn the man and Chris framed him, using blue chalk and a straightedge. The two-dimensional man and the three-dimensional man stared at me intently.
“He’s leaving you?” And for an instant I saw myself from their vantage point across the room—Jo Ann—and a small bubble of self-esteem percolated up from my depths. Chris shrugged. “You’ll do fine,” he said.
During my current turmoils I’ve come to think of work as my own kind of Zen practice, the constant barrage of paper hypnotic and soothing. Chris lets me work an eccentric schedule; in return I update his publications list for him and listen to stories about outer space.
Besides being an editor and a teacher, he’s the head of a theoretical-plasma-physics team made up of graduate students and research scientists. He travels all over the world telling people about the magneto-spheres of various planets, and when he comes back he brings me presents—a small bronze box from Africa with an alligator embossed on the top, a big piece of amber from Poland with the wings of flies preserved inside it, and, once, a set of delicate, horrifying bracelets made from the hide of an elephant.
Currently he is obsessed with the dust in the plasma of Saturn’s rings. Plasma is the fourth state of matter. You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasma-sphere and the plasma-pause. I avoid the math when I can and put a layperson’s spin on these things.
“Plasma is blood,” I told him.
“Exactly,” he agreed, removing the comics page and handing it to me.
This is the kind of conversation we mostly have around the office, but today he’s caught me at a weak moment, tucking my heart back inside my chest. I decide to be cavalier.
“I wish my dog was out tearing up the town and my husband was home sleeping on a blanket,” I say.
Chris is neutral about my marriage problems, but he thinks the dog thing has gone far enough. “Why are you letting this go on?” he asks solemnly.
“I’m not letting it, that’s why,” I tell him. There are stacks of manuscripts everywhere, and he has all the pens over on his side of the room. “It just is, is all. Throw me a pen.” He does, I miss it, stoop to pick it up, and when I straighten up again I might be crying.
“You have control over this,” he explains in his professor voice. “You can decide how long she suffers.”
This makes my heart pound. Absolutely not, I cannot do it. And then I weaken and say what I really want: for her to go to sleep and not wake up, just slip out of her skin and into the other world.
“Exactly,” he says.
I have an ex-beauty queen coming over to get rid of the squirrels for me. She has long red hair and a smile that can stop trucks. I’ve seen her wrestle goats, scare off a giant snake, and express a dog’s anal glands, all in one afternoon. I told her on the phone that a family of squirrels is living in the upstairs of my house.
“They’re making a monkey out of me,” I said.
So Caroline climbs into her car and drives across half the state, pulls up in front of my house, and gets out carrying zucchini, cigarettes, and a pair of big leather gloves. I’m sitting outside with my old dog, who lurches to her feet, staggers three steps, sits down, and falls over. Caroline starts crying.
“Don’t try to give me zucchini,” I say.
We sit companionably on the front stoop for a while, staring at the dog and smoking cigarettes. One time I went to Caroline’s house and she was nursing a dead cat that was still breathing. At some point that afternoon, I saw her spoon baby food into its mouth, and as soon as she turned away the whole pursed mess plopped back out. A day later she took it to the vet and had it euthanized. I remind her of this.
“You’ll do it when you do it,” she says firmly.
I pick the collie up like a fifty-pound bag of sticks and feathers, stagger inside, place her on the damp blankets, and put the two other nutcases in the back yard. From upstairs comes a crash and a shriek. Caroline stares up at the ceiling.
“It’s like having the Wallendas stay at your house,” I say cheerfully. All of a sudden I feel fond of the squirrels and fond of Caroline and fond of myself for heroically calling her to help me. The phone rings four times. It’s the husband, and his voice over the answering machine sounds frantic. He pleads with whoever Jo Ann is to pick up the phone.
“Please? I think I might be freaking out,” he says. “Am I ruining my life here, or what? Am I making a mistake? Jo?” He breathes raggedly and sniffs into the receiver for a moment, then hangs up with a muffled clatter.
Caroline stares at the machine as if it’s a copperhead.
“Holy fuckoly,” she says, shaking her head. “You’re living with this crap?”
“He wants me to reassure him that he’s strong enough to leave me,” I tell her. “Else he won’t have fun on his bike ride. And guess what? I’m too tired to.” But now I can see him in his dank little apartment, wringing his hands and staring out the windows. In his rickety dresser is the new package of condoms he accidentally showed me last week.
Caroline lights another cigarette. The dog pees and thumps her tail.
I need to call him back because he’s suffering.
“You call him back and I’m forced to kill you,” Caroline says. She exhales smoke and points to the phone. “That is evil shit.”
I tend to agree. It’s blanket time. I roll the collie off onto the floor and put the fresh blankets down, roll her back. Caroline has put on the leather gloves, which go all the way to her elbows. She’s staring at the ceiling with determination.
The plan is that I’m supposed to separate one squirrel from the herd and get it in a corner. Caroline will take it from there. But when I’m in the room with her and the squirrels are running around, all I can do is scream. I’m not afraid of them, but my screaming button is on and the only way to turn it off is to leave’ the room.
“How are you doing?” I ask from the other side of the door. I can hear Caroline crashing around and swearing. The door opens and she falls out into the hall with a gray squirrel stuck to her glove. She clatters down the stairs and out the front door, and returns looking triumphant.
The collie appears at the foot of the stairs with her head cocked and her ears up. For an instant she looks like a puppy, then her feet start to slide. I run down and catch her and carry her upstairs so she can watch the show. The squirrels careen around the room, tearing the ancient wallpaper off the walls. The last one is a baby, so we keep it for a few minutes, looking at its little feet and its little tail. We show it to the collie, who stands up immediately and tries to get it.
Caroline patches the hole where they got in, cutting the wood with a power saw down in the basement. She comes up wearing a tool belt and lugging a ladder. I’ve seen a scrapbook of photos of her wearing evening gowns with a banner across her chest and a crown on her head. Curled hair, lipstick. She climbs down and puts the tools away. We eat nachos.
“I only make food that’s boiled or melted these days,” I tell her.
“I know,” she replies.
The phone rings again, but whoever it is hangs up.
“Is it him?” she asks.
Caroline gestures toward the sleeping collie and remarks that it seems like just two days ago that she was a puppy.
“She was never a puppy,” I tell her. “She’s always been older than me.”
When they say goodbye, Caroline holds the collie’s long nose in one hand and kisses her on the forehead; the collie stares back at her gravely. Caroline is crying when she leaves, a combination of squirrel adrenaline and sadness. I cry, too, although I don’t feel particularly bad about anything. I hand her the zucchini through the window and she pulls away from the curb.
The house is starting to get dark in that early evening twilight way. I turn on lights and go upstairs. The black dog comes with me and circles the squirrel room, snorting loudly, nose to floor. There is a spot of turmoil in an open box – they made a nest in some disco shirts from the seventies. I suspect that’s where the baby one slept. The mean landlady has evicted them.
Downstairs, I turn the lights back off and let evening have its way with me. Waves of pre-night time nervousness a the collie’s blanket. I sit next to her in the dimness, touching her ears, and listen for feet at the top of the stairs.
They’re speaking in physics, so I’m left out of the conversation. Chris apologetically erases one of the pictures I’ve drawn on the blackboard and replaces it with a curving blue arrow surrounded by radiating chalk waves of green.
“If it’s plasma, make it in red,” I suggest. We’re all smoking semi-illegally in the journal office with the door closed and the window open. We’re having a plasma party.
“We aren’t discussing plasma,” Bob Smith says condescendingly. A stocky, short-tempered man, he’s smoking a horrendously smelly pipe. The longer he stays in here, the more it feels as if I’m breathing small daggers in through my nose. He and I don’t get along; each of us thinks the other needs to be taken down a peg. Once we had a hissing match in the hallway which ended with him suggesting that I could be fired, which drove me to tell him that he was already fired, and both of us stomped into our offices and slammed our doors.
“I had to fire Bob,” I tell Chris later.
“I heard,” he says. Bob is his best friend. They spend at least half of each day standing in front of blackboards, writing equations and arguing about outer space. Then they write theoretical papers about what they come up with. They’re actually quite a big deal in the space-physics community, but around here they’re just two guys who keep erasing my pictures.
Someone knocks on the door and we put our cigarettes out. Bob hides his pipe in the palm of his hand and opens the door.
It’s Gang Lu, the doctoral student. Everyone lights up again. Gang Lu stands stiffly talking to Chris, while Bob holds a match to his pipe and puffs fiercely; nose daggers waft up and out, right in my direction. I give him a sugary smile and he gives me one back. Unimaginable, really, that less than two months from now one of his colleagues from abroad, a woman with delicate, birdlike features, will appear at the door to my office and identify herself as a friend of Bob’s. When she asks, I take her down the hall to the room with the long table and then to his empty office. I do this without saying anything, because there’s nothing to say, and she takes it all in with small, serious nods until the moment she sees his blackboard covered with scribbles and arrows and equations. At that point her face loosens and she starts to cry in long ragged sobs. An hour later, I go back and the office is empty. When I erase the blackboard finally, I can see where she laid her hands carefully, where the numbers are ghostly and blurred.
Bob blows his smoke discreetly in my direction and waits for Chris to finish talking to Gang Lu, who is answering questions in a monotone -yes or no or I don’t know. Another Chinese student, Linhua Shan, lets himself in after knocking lightly. He nods and smiles at me and then stands at a respectful distance, waiting to ask Chris a question.
It’s like a physics conference in here. I wish they’d all leave so I can make my usual mid-afternoon spate of personal calls. I begin thumbing through papers in a businesslike way.
Bob pokes at his pipe with a paper clip. Linhua Shan yawns hugely and then looks embarrassed. Chris erases what he put on the blackboard and tries unsuccessfully to redraw my pecking parakeet. “I don’t know how it goes,” he says to me.
Gang Lu looks around the room with expressionless eyes. He’s sick of physics and sick of the buffoons who practice it. The tall glacial German, Chris, who tells him what to do; the crass idiot Bob, who talks to him as if he is a dog; the student Shan, whose ideas about plasma physics are treated with reverence and praised at every meeting. The woman who puts her feet on the desk and dismisses him with her eyes. Gang Lu no longer spends his evenings in the computer lab down the hall, running simulations and thinking about magnetic forces and invisible particles; he now spends them at the firing range, learning to hit a moving target with the gun he purchased last spring. He pictures himself holding the gun with both hands, arms straight out and steady; Clint Eastwood, only smarter.
He stares at each person in turn, trying to gauge how much respect each of them has for him. One by one. Behind black-rimmed glasses, he counts with his eyes. In each case the verdict is clear: not enough.
The collie fell down the basement stairs. I don’t know if she was disoriented and was looking for me or what. But when I was at work she used her long nose like a lever and got the door open and tried to go down there, except her legs wouldn’t do it and she fell. I found her sleeping on the concrete floor in an unnatural position, one leg still awkwardly resting on the last step. I repositioned the leg and sat down and petted her. We used to play a game called Maserati, where I’d grab her long nose like a gearshift and put her through all the gears—first second third fourth—until we were going a hundred miles an hour through town. She thought it was funny.
Friday, I’m at work, but this morning there’s not much to do, and every time I turn around I see her sprawled, eyes mute, leg bent upward. We’re breaking each others heart. I draw a picture of her on the blackboard using brown chalk. I make X’s where her eyes should be. Chris walks in with the morning paper and a cup of coffee. He looks around the clean office.
“Why are you here when there’s no work to do?” he asks.
“I’m hiding from my life, what else?” This sounds perfectly reasonable to him. He gives me part of the paper.
His mother is visiting from Germany; she’s a robust woman of eighty who is depressed and hoping to be cheered up. In the last year she has lost her one-hundred-year-old mother and her husband of sixty years. She can’t be really cheered up, but she likes going to art galleries, so Chris has been driving her around the Midwest, to our best cities, showing her what kind of art Americans like to look at.
“How’s your mom?” I ask him.
He shrugs and makes a flat-handed “so-so” motion.
We read, smoke, drink coffee, and yawn. I decide to go home.
“Good idea,” he says.
It’s November 1, 1991, the last day of the first part of my life. Before I leave, I pick up the eraser and stand in front of the collie’s picture on the blackboard, thinking. I can feel Chris watching me, drinking his coffee. His long legs are crossed, his eyes are mild. He has a wife named Ulrike, a daughter named Karein, and a son named G6ran. A dog named Mica. A mother named Ursula. A friend named me.
I erase the X’s.
Down the hall, Linhua Shan feeds numbers into a computer and watches as a graph is formed. The computer screen is brilliant blue, and the lines appear in red and yellow and green. Four key-strokes and the green becomes purple, the blue background fades to the azure of a summer sky. The wave lines arc over it, crossing against one another. He asks the computer to print, and while it chugs along he pulls up a golf game on the screen and tees off.
One room over, at a desk, Gang Lu works on a letter to his sister in China. The study of physics is more and more disappointing, he tells her. Modern physics is self-delusion, and All my life I have been honest and straightforward, and I have most of all detested cunning, fawning sycophants and dishonest bureaucrats who think they are always right in everything. Delicate Chinese characters all over a page. She was a kind and gentle sister, and he thanks her for that. He’s going to kill himself. You yourself should not be too sad about it, for at least I have found a few traveling companions to accompany me to the grave. Inside the coat on the back of his chair are a .38-caliber handgun and a .22-caliber revolver. They’re heavier than they look and weigh the pockets down. My beloved second elder sister, I take my eternal leave of you.
The collie’s eyes are almond-shaped; I draw them in with brown chalk and put a white bone next to her feet.
“That’s better,” Chris says kindly.
Before I leave the building I pass Gang Lu in the hallway and say hello. He has a letter in his hand and he’s wearing his coat. He doesn’t answer, and I don’t expect him to. At the end of the hallway are the double doors leading to the rest of my life. I push them open and walk through.
Friday afternoon seminar, everyone is glazed over, listening as someone at the head of the long table explains something unexplainable. Gang Lu stands up and leaves the room abruptly, goes down one floor to see if the department chairman, Dwight, is sitting in his office. He is. The door is open. Gang Lu turns, walks back up the stairs, and enters the seminar room again. Chris Goertz is sitting near the door and takes the first bullet in the back of the head. There is a loud popping sound and then blue smoke. Linhua Shan gets the second bullet in the forehead; the lenses of his glasses shatter. More smoke and the room rings with the pop-ping. Bob Smith tries to crawl beneath the table. Gang Lu takes two steps, holds his arms straight out, and levels the gun with both hands. Bob looks up. The third bullet in the right hand, the fourth in the chest. Smoke. Elbows and legs, people trying to get out of the way and then out of the room.
Gang Lu walks quickly down the stairs, expelling spent cartridges and loading new ones. From the doorway of Dwight’s office: the fifth bullet in the head, the sixth strays, the seventh also in the head. A slumping. More smoke and ringing. Through the cloud an image comes to him—Bob Smith, hit in the chest, hit in the hand, still alive. Back up the stairs. Two scientists, young men, crouch over Bob, loosening his clothes, talking to him. From where he lies, Bob can see his best friend still sitting upright in a chair, head thrown back at an unnatural angle. Everything is broken and red. The two young scientists leave the room at gunpoint. Bob closes his eyes. The eighth and ninth bullets in his head. As Bob dies, Chris Goertz’s body settles in his chair, a long sigh escapes his throat. Reload. Two more for Chris, one for Linhua Shan. Exit the building, cross two streets and the green, into the second building and up the stairs.
The administrator, Anne Cleary, is summoned from her office by the receptionist. She speaks to him for a few minutes, he produces a gun and shoots her in the face. The receptionist, a young student working as a temp, is just beginning to stand when he shoots her. He expels the spent cartridges in the stairwell, loads new ones. Reaches the top of the steps, looks around. Is disoriented suddenly. The ringing and the smoke and the dissatisfaction of not checking all the names off the list. A slamming and a running sound, the shout of police. He walks into an empty conference room, takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it over the back of a chair. Checks his watch: twelve minutes since it began. Places the barrel against his right temple. Fires.
The first call comes at four o’clock. I’m reading on the bench in the kitchen, one foot on a sleeping dog’s back. It’s Mary, calling from work. There’s been some kind of disturbance in the building, a rumor that Dwight was shot; cops are running through the halls carrying rifles. They’re evacuating the building and she’s coming over. Dwight, a tall, likable oddball who cut off his ponytail when they made him chair of the department. Greets everyone with a famous booming hello in the morning; studies plasma, just like Chris and Bob. Chris lives two and a half blocks from the physics building; he’ll be home by now if they’ve evacuated. I dial his house and his mother answers. She tells me that Chris won’t be home until five, and then they’re going to a play. Ulrike, her daughter-in-law, is coming back from a trip to Chicago and will join them. She wants to know why I’m looking for Chris—isn’t he where I am?
No, I’m at home and I just had to ask him something. Could he please call me when he comes in.
She tells me that Chris showed her a drawing I made of him sitting at his desk behind a stack of manuscripts. She’s so pleased to meet Chris’s friends, and the Midwest is lovely, really, except it’s very brown, isn’t it?
It is very brown. We hang up.
The Midwest is very brown. The phone rings. It’s a physicist. His wife, a friend of mine, is on the extension. Well, he’s not sure, but it’s possible that I should brace myself for bad news. I’ve already heard, I tell him—something happened to Dwight. There’s a long pause, and then his wife says, ‘Jo Ann. It’s possible that Chris was involved.”
I think she means Chris shot Dwight. “No,” she says gently. “Killed, too.”
Mary is here. I tell them not to worry and hang up. I have two cigarettes going. Mary takes one and smokes it. She’s not looking at me. I tell her about the phone call.
“They’re out of it,” I say. “They thought Chris was involved.”
She repeats what they said: “I think you should brace yourself for bad news.” Pours whiskey into a coffee cup.
For a few minutes I can’t sit down, I can’t stand up. I can only smoke. The phone rings. Another physicist tells me there’s some bad news. He mentions Chris and Bob and I tell him I don’t want to talk right now. He says O.K but to be prepared because it’s going to be on the news any minute. It’s 4:45.
“Now they’re trying to stir Bob into the stew,” I tell Mary. She nods; she’s heard this, too. I have the distinct feeling there is something going on that I can either understand or not under-stand. There’s a choice to be made.
“I don’t understand,” I tell Mary.
We sit in the darkening living room, smoking and sipping our cups of whiskey. Inside my head I keep thinking, Uh-oh, over and over. I’m rattled; I can’t calm down and figure this out.
“I think we should brace ourselves in case something bad has happened,” I say to Mary. She nods. “Just in case. It won’t hurt to be braced.” I realize that I don’t know what “braced” means. You hear it all the time, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. Whiskey is supposed to be bracing, but what it is is awful. I want either tea or beer, no whiskey. Mary nods again and heads into the kitchen.
Within an hour there are seven women in the dim living room, sitting. Switching back and forth between CNN and the local news reports. There is something terrifying about the quality of the light and the way voices are echoing in the room. The phone never stops ringing, ever since the story hit the national news. Physics, University of Iowa, dead people. Names not yet released. Everyone I’ve ever known is checking in to see if I’m still alive. California calls, New York calls, Florida calls, Ohio calls twice. My husband is having a party and all his guests call, one after another, to ask how I’m doing. Each time, fifty times, I think it might be Chris and then it isn’t.
It occurs to me once that I could call his house and talk to him directly, find out exactly what happened. Fear that his mother would answer prevents me from doing it. By this time I am getting reconciled to the fact that Linhua Shan, Gang Lu, and Dwight Nicholson were killed. Also an administrator and her office assistant. The Channel 9 newswoman keeps saying there are five dead and two in critical condition. The names will be released at nine o’clock. Eventually I sacrifice all of them except Chris and Bob; they are the ones in critical condition, which is certainly not hope-less. At some point I go into the study to get away from the terrible dimness in the living room—all those eyes, all that calmness in the face of chaos. The collie tries to stand up, but someone stops her with a handful of Fritos.
The study is small and cold after I shut the door, but more brightly lit than the living room. I can’t remember what anything means. The phone rings and I pick up the extension and listen. My friend Michael is calling from Illinois for the second time. He asks Shirley if I’m holding up O.K. Shirley says it’s hard to tell. I go back into the living room.
The newswoman breaks in at nine o’clock, and of course the drag it out as long as they can. I’ve already figured out that if they go in alphabetical order Chris will come first: Goertz, Lu, Nicholson, Shan, Smith. His name will come on first. She drones on, dead University of Iowa professors, lone gunman named Gang Lu.
Gang Lu. Lone gunman. Before I have a chance to absorb that, she says, The dead are.
Oh no, oh God. I lean against Mary’s chair and then leave the room abruptly. I have to stand in the bathroom for a while and look at myself in the mirror. I’m still Jo Ann, white face and dark hair. I have earrings on, tiny wrenches that hang from wires. In the living room she’s pronouncing all the other names. The two critically wounded are the administrator and her assistant, Miya Rodolfo-Sioson. The administrator is already dead for all practical purposes, although they won’t disconnect the machines until the following afternoon. The student receptionist will survive but will never again be able to move much more than her head. She was in Gang Lu’s path and he shot her and the bullet lodged in the top of her spine and she will never dance or walk or spend a day alone. She got to keep her head but lost her body. The final victim is Chris’s mother, who will weather it all with a dignified face and an erect spine, then return to Germany and kill herself without further words or fanfare.
I tell the white face in the mirror that Gang Lu did this, wrecked everything and murdered all those people. It seems as ludicrous as everything else. I can’t get my mind to work right. I’m still operating on yesterday’s facts; today hasn’t jelled yet. “It’s a good thing none of this happened,” I say to my face. A knock on the door, and I open it.
Julene’s hesitant face. “She wanted to come visit you,” she tells me. I bring the collie in and close the door. We sit by the tub. She lifts her long nose to my face and I take her muzzle and we move through the gears slowly – first second third fourth – all the way through town, until what happened has happened and we know it has happened. We return to the living room. The second wave of calls is starting to come in, from people who just saw the faces on the news. Shirley screens. A knock comes on the door. Julene settles the dog down again on her blanket. It’s the husband at the door, looking distraught. He hugs me hard, but I’m made of cement, arms stuck in a down position.
The women immediately clear out, taking their leave, looking at the floor. Suddenly it’s only me and him, sitting in our living room on a Friday night, just like always. I realize it took courage for him to come to the house when he did, facing all those women who think he’s the Antichrist. The dogs are crowded against him on the couch and he’s wearing a shirt I’ve never seen before. He’s here to help me get through this. Me. He knows how awful this must be. Awful. He knows how I felt about Chris. Past tense. I have to put my hands over my face for a minute.
We sit silently in our living room. He watches the mute television screen and I watch him. The planes and ridges of his face are more familiar to me than my own. I understand that he wishes even more than I do that he still loved me. When he looks over at me, it’s with an expression I’ve seen before. It’s the way he looks at the dog on the blanket.
I get his coat and follow him out into the cold November night. There are stars and stars and stars. The sky is full of dead men, drifting in the blackness like helium balloons. My mother floats past in a hospital gown, trailing tubes. I go back inside where the heat is.
The house is empty and dim, full of dogs and cigarette butts. The collie has peed again. The television is flickering “Special Re-port” across the screen and I turn it off before the pictures appear. I bring blankets up, fresh and warm from the dryer.
After all the commotion the living room feels cavernous and dead. A branch scrapes against the house, and for a brief instant I feel a surge of hope. They might have come back. And I stand at the foot of the stairs staring up into the darkness, listening for the sounds of their little squirrel feet. Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone.
I wake her up three times between midnight and dawn. She doesn’t usually sleep this soundly, but all the chaos and company in the house tonight have made her more tired than usual. The Lab wakes and drowsily begins licking her lower region. She stops and stares at me, trying to make out my face in the dark, then gives up and sleeps. The brown dog is flat on her back with her paws limp, wedged between me and the back of the couch.
I’ve propped myself so I’ll be able to see when dawn starts to arrive. For now there are still planets and stars. Above the black branches of a maple is the Dog Star, Sirius, my personal favorite. The dusty rings of Saturn. Io, Jupiter’s moon.
When I think I can’t bear it for one more minute I reach down and nudge her gently with my dog arm. She rises slowly, faltering, and stands over me in the darkness. My peer, my colleague. In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we’re in a pocket of silence. We’re in the plasma-pause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of stillness, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.
Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.