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Back in the World: Stories


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Pete couldn’t make sense of it. Their parents were both dead, but while they were alive neither of them had found it necessary to believe in anything. They managed to be decent people without making fools of themselves, and Pete had the same ambition. He thought that the whole thing was an excuse for Donald to take himself seriously.

The trouble was that Donald couldn’t content himself with worrying about his own soul. He had to worry about everyone else’s, and especially Pete’s. He handed down his judgments in ways that he seemed to consider subtle: through significant silence, innuendo, looks of mild despair that said, Brother, what have you come to? What Pete had come to, as far as he could tell, was prosperity. That was the real issue between them. Pete prospered and Donald did not prosper.

At the age of forty Pete took up sky diving. He made his first jump with two friends who’d started only a few months earlier and were already doing stunts. He never would have used the word mystical, but that was how Pete felt about the experience. Later he made the mistake of trying to describe it to Donald, who kept asking how much it cost and then acted appalled when Pete told him.

“At least I’m trying something new,” Pete said. “At least I’m breaking the pattern.”

Not long after that conversation Donald also broke the pattern, by going to live on a farm outside Paso Robles. The farm was owned by several members of Donald’s community, who had bought it and moved there with the idea of forming a family of faith. That was how Donald explained it in the first letter he sent. Every week Pete heard how happy Donald was, how “in the Lord.” He told Pete that he was praying for him, he and the rest of Pete’s brothers and sisters on the farm.

“I only have one brother,” Pete wanted to answer, “and that’s enough.” But he kept this thought to himself.

In November the letters stopped. Pete didn’t worry about this at first, but when he called Donald at Thanksgiving Donald was grim. He tried to sound upbeat but he didn’t try hard enough to make it convincing. “Now listen,” Pete said, “you don’t have to stay in that place if you don’t want to.”

“I’ll be all right,” Donald answered.

“That’s not the point. Being all right is not the point. If you don’t like what’s going on up there, then get out.”

“I’m all right,” Donald said again, more firmly. “I’m doing fine.”

But he called Pete a week later and said that he was quitting the farm. When Pete asked him where he intended to go, Donald admitted that he had no plan. His car had been repossessed just before he left the city, and he was flat broke.

“I guess you’ll have to stay with us,” Pete said.

Donald put up a show of resistance. Then he gave in. “Just until I get my feet on the ground,” he said.

“Right,” Pete said. “Check out your options.” He told Donald he’d send him money for a bus ticket, but as they were about to hang up Pete changed his mind. He knew that Donald would try hitchhiking to save the fare. Pete didn’t want him out on the road all alone where some head case would pick him up, where anything could happen to him.

“Better yet,” he said, “I’ll come and get you.”

“You don’t have to do that. I didn’t expect you to do that,” Donald said. He added, “It’s a pretty long drive.”

“Just tell me how to get there.”

But Donald wouldn’t give him directions. He said that the farm was too depressing, that Pete wouldn’t like it. Instead, he insisted on meeting Pete at a service station called Jonathan’s Mechanical Emporium.

“You must be kidding,” Pete said.

“It’s close to the highway,” Donald said. “I didn’t name it.”

“That’s one for the collection,” Pete said.

The day before he left to bring Donald home, Pete received a letter from a man who described himself as “head of household” at the farm where Donald had been living. From this letter Pete learned that Donald had not quit the farm, but had been asked to leave. The letter was written on the back of a mimeographed survey form asking people to record their response to a ceremony of some kind. The last question said:

What did you feel during the liturgy?

a) Being

b) Becoming

c) Being and Becoming

d) None of the Above

e) All of the Above

Pete tried to forget the letter. But of course he couldn’t. Each time he thought of it he felt crowded and breathless, a feeling that came over him again when he drove into the service station and saw Donald sitting against a wall with his head on his knees. It was late afternoon. A paper cup tumbled slowly past Donald’s feet, pushed by the damp wind.

Pete honked and Donald raised his head. He smiled at Pete, then stood and stretched. His arms were long and thin and white. He wore a red bandanna across his forehead, a T-shirt with a couple of words on the front. Pete couldn’t read them because the letters were inverted.

“Grow up,” Pete yelled. “Get a Mercedes.”

Donald came up to the window. He bent down and said, “Thanks for coming. You must be totally whipped.”

“I’ll make it.” Pete pointed at Donald’s T-shirt. “What’s that supposed to say?”

Donald looked down at his shirt front. “Try God. I guess I put it on backwards. Pete, could I borrow a couple of dollars? I owe these people for coffee and sandwiches.”

Pete took five twenties from his wallet and held them out the window.

Donald stepped back as if horrified. “I don’t need that much.”

“I can’t keep track of all these nickels and dimes,” Pete said. “Just pay me back when your ship comes in.” He waved the bills impatiently. “Go on—take it.”

“Only for now.” Donald took the money and went into the service station office. He came out carrying two orange sodas, one of which he gave to Pete as he got into the car. “My treat,” he said.

“No bags?”

“Wow, thanks for reminding me.” Donald balanced his drink on the dashboard, but the slight rocking of the car as he got out tipped it onto the passenger’s seat, where half its contents foamed over before Pete could snatch it up again. Donald looked on while Pete held the bottle out the window, soda running down his fingers.

“Wipe it up,” Pete told him. “Quick!”

“With what?”

Pete stared at Donald. “That shirt. Use the shirt.”

Donald pulled a long face but did as he was told, his pale skin puckering against the wind.

“Great, just great,” Pete said. “We haven’t even left the gas station yet.”

Afterwards, on the highway, Donald said, “This is a new car, isn’t it?”

“Yes. This is a new car.”

“Is that why you’re so upset about the seat?”

“Forget it, okay? Let’s just forget about it.”

“I said I was sorry.”

Pete said, “I just wish you’d be more careful. These seats are made of leather. That stain won’t come out, not to mention the smell. I don’t see why I can’t have leather seats that smell like leather instead of orange pop.”

“What was wrong with the other car?”

Pete glanced over at Donald. Donald had raised the hood of the blue sweatshirt he’d put on. The peaked hood above his gaunt, watchful face gave him the look of an inquisitor.

“There wasn’t anything wrong with it,” Pete said. “I just happened to like this one better.”

Donald nodded.

There was a long silence between them as Pete drove on and the day darkened toward evening. On either side of the road lay stubble-covered fields. A line of low hills ran along the horizon, topped here and there with trees black against the grey sky. In the approaching line of cars a driver turned on his headlights. Pete did the same.

“So what happened?” he asked. “Farm life not your bag?”

Donald took some time to answer, and at last he said, simply, “It was my fault.”

“What wa

s your fault?”

“The whole thing. Don’t play dumb, Pete. I know they wrote to you.” Donald looked at Pete, then stared out the windshield again.

“I’m not playing dumb.”

Donald shrugged.

“All I really know is they asked you to leave,” Pete went on. “I don’t know any of the particulars.”

“I blew it,” Donald said. “Believe me, you don’t want to hear the gory details.”

“Sure I do,” Pete said. He added, “Everybody likes the gory details.”

“You mean everybody likes to hear how someone messed up.”

“Right,” Pete said. “That’s the way it is here on Spaceship Earth.”

Donald bent one knee onto the front seat and leaned against the door so that he was facing Pete instead of the windshield. Pete was aware of Donald’s scrutiny. He waited. Night was coming on in a rush now, filling the hollows of the land. Donald’s long cheeks and deep-set eyes were dark with shadow. His brow was white. “Do you ever dream about me?” Donald asked.

“Do I ever dream about you? What kind of a question is that? Of course I don’t dream about you,” Pete said, untruthfully.

“What do you dream about?”

“Sex and money. Mostly money. A nightmare is when I dream I don’t have any.”

“You’re just making that up,” Donald said.

Pete smiled.

“Sometimes I wake up at night,” Donald went on, “and I can tell you’re dreaming about me.”

“We were talking about the farm,” Pete said. “Let’s finish that conversation and then we can talk about our various out-of-body experiences and the interesting things we did during previous incarnations.”

For a moment Donald looked like a grinning skull; then he turned serious again. “There’s not much to tell,” he said. “I just didn’t do anything right.”

“That’s a little vague,” Pete said.

“Well, like the groceries. Whenever it was my turn to get the groceries I’d blow it somehow. I’d bring the groceries home and half of them would be missing, or I’d have all the wrong things, the wrong kind of flour or the wrong kind of chocolate or whatever. One time I gave them away. It’s not funny, Pete.”

Pete said, “Who did you give the groceries to?”

“Just some people I picked up on the way home. Some fieldworkers. They had about eight kids with them and they didn’t even speak English—just nodded their heads. Still, I shouldn’t have given away the groceries. Not all of them, anyway. I really learned my lesson about that. You have to be practical. You have to be fair to yourself.” Donald leaned forward, and Pete could sense his excitement. “There’s nothing actually wrong with being in business,” he said. “As long as you’re fair to other people you can still be fair to yourself. I’m thinking of going into business, Pete.”

“We’ll talk about it,” Pete said. “So, that’s the story? There isn’t any more to it than that?”

“What did they tell you?” Donald asked.

“Nothing.”

“They must have told you something.”

Pete shook his head.

“They didn’t tell you about the fire?” When Pete shook his head again Donald regarded him for a time, then folded his arms across his chest and slumped back into the corner. “Everybody had to take turns cooking dinner. I usually did tuna casserole or spaghetti with garlic bread. But this one night I thought I’d do something different, something really interesting.” Donald looked sharply at Pete. “It’s all a big laugh to you, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry,” Pete said.

“You don’t know when to quit. You just keep hitting away.”

“Tell me about the fire, Donald.”

Donald kept watching him. “You have this compulsion to make me look foolish.”

“Come off it, Donald. Don’t make a big thing out of this.”

“I know why you do it. It’s because you don’t have any purpose in life. You’re afraid to relate to people who do, so you make fun of them.”

“Relate,” Pete said.

“You’re basically a very frightened individual,” Donald said. “Very threatened. You’ve always been like that. Do you remember when you used to try to kill me?”

“I don’t have any compulsion to make you look foolish, Donald—you do it yourself. You’re doing it right now.”

“You can’t tell me you don’t remember,” Donald said. “It was after my operation. You remember that.”

“Sort of.” Pete shrugged. “Not really.”

“Oh yes,” Donald said. “Do you want to see the scar?”

“I remember you had an operation. I don’t remember the specifics, that’s all. And I sure as hell don’t remember trying to kill you.”

“Oh yes,” Donald repeated, maddeningly. “You bet your life you did. All the time. The thing was, I couldn’t have anything happen to me where they sewed me up because then my intestines would come apart again and poison me. That was a big issue, Pete. Mom was always in a state about me climbing trees and so on. And you used to hit me there every chance you got.”

“Mom was in a state every time you burped,” Pete said. “I don’t know. Maybe I bumped into you accidentally once or twice. I never did it deliberately.”

“Every chance you got,” Donald said. “Like when the folks went out at night and left you to baby-sit. I’d hear them say good night, and then I’d hear the car start up, and when they were gone I’d lie there and listen. After a while I would hear you coming down the hall, and I would close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. There were nights when you would stand outside the door, just stand there, and then go away again. But most nights you’d open the door and I would hear you in the room with me, breathing. You’d come over and sit next to me on the bed—you remember, Pete, you have to—you’d sit next to me on the bed and pull the sheets back. If I was on my stomach you’d roll me over. Then you would lift up my pajama shirt and start hitting me on my stitches. You’d hit me as hard as you could, over and over. I was afraid that you’d get mad if you knew I was awake. Is that strange or what? I was afraid that you’d get mad if you found out that I knew you were trying to kill me.” Donald laughed. “Come on, you can’t tell me you don’t remember that.”

“It might have happened once or twice. Kids do those things. I can’t get all excited about something I maybe did twenty-five years ago.

“No maybe about it. You did it.”

Pete said, “You’re wearing me out with this stuff. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us and if you don’t back off pretty soon we aren’t going to make it. You aren’t, anyway.”

Donald turned away.

“I’m doing my best,” Pete said. The self-pity in his own voice made the words sound like a lie. But they weren’t a lie! He was doing his best.

The car topped a rise. In the distance Pete saw a cluster of lights that blinked out when he started downhill. There was no moon. The sky was low and black.

“Come to think of it,” Pete said, “I did have a dream about you the other night.” Then he added, impatiently, as if Donald were badgering him, “A couple of other nights, too. I’m getting hungry,” he said.

“The same dream?”

“Different dreams. I only remember one of them. There was something wrong with me, and you were helping out. Taking care of me. Just the two of us. I don’t know where everyone else was supposed to be.”

Pete left it at that. He didn’t tell Donald that in this dream he was blind.

“I wonder if that was when I woke up,” Donald said. He added, “I’m sorry I got into that thing about my scar. I keep trying to forget it but I guess I never will. Not really. It was pretty strange, having someone around all the time who wanted to get rid of me.”

“Kid stuff,” Pete said. “Ancient history.”

They ate dinner at a Denny’s on the other side of King City. As Pete was paying the check he heard a man behind him say, “Excuse me, but I wonder if I mig

ht ask which way you’re going?” and Donald answer, “Santa Cruz.”

“Perfect,” the man said.

Pete could see him in the fish-eye mirror above the cash register: a red blazer with some kind of crest on the pocket, little black moustache, glossy black hair combed down on his forehead like a Roman emperor’s. A rug, Pete thought. Definitely a rug.

Pete got his change and turned. “Why is that perfect?” he asked.

The man looked at Pete. He had a soft, ruddy face that was doing its best to express pleasant surprise, as if this new wrinkle were all he could have wished for, but the eyes behind the aviator glasses showed signs of regret. His lips were moist and shiny. “I take it you’re together,” he said.

“You got it,” Pete told him.

“All the better, then,” the man went on. “It so happens I’m going to Santa Cruz myself. Had a spot of car trouble down the road. The old Caddy let me down.”

“What kind of trouble?” Pete asked.

“Engine trouble,” the man said. “I’m afraid it’s a bit urgent. My daughter is sick. Urgently sick. I’ve got a telegram here.” He patted the breast pocket of his blazer.

Before Pete could say anything Donald got into the act again. “No problem,” Donald said. “We’ve got tons of room.”

“Not that much room,” Pete said.

Donald nodded. “I’ll put my things in the trunk.”

“The trunk’s full,” Pete told him.

“It so happens I’m traveling light,” the man said. “This leg of the trip anyway. In fact, I don’t have any luggage at this particular time.”

Pete said, “Left it in the old Caddy, did you?”

“Exactly,” the man said.

“No problem,” Donald repeated. He walked outside and the man went with him. Together they strolled across the parking lot, Pete following at a distance. When they reached Pete’s car Donald raised his face to the sky, and the man did the same. They stood there looking up. “Dark night,” Donald said.



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