Atlanta Evening – Editor’s Pick

The moment his new ringtone murmured, then trailed through the office like wind chimes, Marcus shivered, before snorting at himself. Possibly inside his bones there lingered some expectation, some fickle memory, but he wasn’t sure either one needed exhuming. Still, careful not to touch his soiled gloves on anything but the trash he was dispatching, he alternated between checking his pockets with his forearms and plucking Kleenexes from Professor Wilson’s desk. (They were arrayed like meringues on his grandma’s cooking sheet—an ancient memory culled from nowhere indeed.)

Where had the sound come from? Apparently, his pockets were empty; and no sooner had the ringing ended than the sensation ebbed too. Which was just as well: Bypassing rationality in favor of shivers didn’t suit him anyway.

Though in his mid-sixties, he was vigorous and trim, a proficient office cleaner who called himself a “reader.” When he said that, people often rolled their eyes, as if he were merely eccentric. To this he didn’t respond well; he might withdraw, stop shaving, or even eschew hygiene altogether for a day or two.

Today in fact, his chin was scraggly, while his eyes, he imagined, passing an oval mirror hanging beside a picture of a café, still fizzed, or so his late friend Reggie might’ve said. But once the ringing started again, echoing behind him, an otherworldly pulse this time, he forgot his reflection, thumbing the law review galleys stacked behind him instead. While it might be a robocall, or Mother, he wanted to be sure. Yet the phone was elusive. Where had he put it? Thoughtlessly, but according to protocol, he pulled off his gloves so he could swipe the screen without delay.

Not until the ringing stopped and started again, while he was pulling an apple core, still moist, from Wilson’s trash, did it appear. Or rather, from where he stood he saw a rectangle illuminating a corner of his satchel crumpled beneath a table. Gingerly, because of his sticky fingers, he rummaged through the bag’s blinking contents and pressed Talk in time to hear Ariel to blurt his name. It wasn’t the first time she’d said it that way.

Or perhaps that’s what the veteran’s advocate meant extolling the phone’s clear reception? Given her earnest eyes and turquoise nail polish, he’d hoped she was flirting. Awkwardly, given his sore arm, he tilted Wilson’s trash once more, as if answers instead of apple seeds reposed there. Then over to a shelf of Foreign Affairs journals for a quick dusting, while Ariel’s cadences flowed, buoyed, and tossed him about, just like in the old days.

These days, he waited before he interrupted. And he interrupted only when he was about to burst: No way his daughter was enlisting. Nor was she going to Afghanistan, or Syria, or wherever, he added, wiping his fingers on his pants. Given his Vietnam frolic, what was she thinking? Of course he’d been skeptical from the beginning, when she joined JROTC to gain “leadership skills.” And now Ariel was asking did he want to know her view. Um, during their marriage, when she invariably chose the swiftest route to jobs, promotions, and pensions, he’d heard nothing but her views. Divorce had only freed her to pursue them more avidly.

Not eager to revisit ancient quarrels, however, Marcus gazed through Wilson’s bay window, resting his knee on the blue corduroy bench pillow, to watch several grandees arrive for the Claiborne symposium. Stark in the balmy air, a pink blazer worn by a woman, a yellow dress shirt by a gray-suited man, brightened the law school’s wide gray steps, which were sunken in the middle to feign a venerable antiquity, not that the ascending couple would notice. At the top, looking pleased as deities, they turned around and greeted another gray-suited man, who was jogging up as if he were in a stadium. With the peculiar beauty of late afternoon glittering around them like a dream, other guests, several affixed to their phones, veered around the trio mechanically and disappeared into the building.

“Looks like the symposium hall might fill up,” Marcus said.

“You still at work?” Ariel asked, mellowing on her end as well.

“Yep—lecture this evening,” Marcus said, trying to conceal his excitement. It wouldn’t do to reveal his hopes for the evening. Often enough, he’d seen Ariel extinguish the hopes of her siblings among others, although he’d also seen her give cash and a mite or wealth of encouragement, depending on her mood.

“On what?”

“Foreign policy.”

“Yeah—I don’t want to be around you after that.”

“I’ll be over later. Danyela and I can chat.”

“What do you mean—‘chat’?”

“I won’t be insufferable.”

“I don’t care if you suffer. Just don’t be a jerk.”

After he and Ariel hung up, Marcus pulled his cart from the office, aware of a younger

Wilson, handsome as an upright piano in a black turtleneck, surveying his progress from a desk photo. Were those the Rockies spiking hopefully behind him? With his arms clasping a variety of girths, belonging presumably to other academics, Wilson looked hopeful then too, Marcus mused, until a breeze from an open door sent two potato chip bags pirouetting down the corridor. Dutifully, he zigzagged from one to the other, trapping each bag with his toe, scooping them up, before heading toward the symposium hall. Upon stashing the cart in the utility room, he ducked through a side door, effortlessly thanks to his athletic grace, and leaned against the wall next to the brass donors’ plaque. From there, he was close enough to see the pink cheeks of Nate Lawson, the speaker, who was ambling toward the lectern through a surge of applause rolling summarily into a crescendo.

Perhaps it was the thrill of recognition? Because soon enough, Marcus was clapping with everyone else. For not only did Lawson’s news-hour fame beguile, his rumpled tweed blazer, his merry whiff of youthfulness did as well. How easy to imagine, lurking inside the sixty-five-year-old, the loquacious college junior Professor Dirks had recalled earlier, dashing across a tree-lined quad!

Of course, this image had been offered not to him, but to Professor Wilson. But setting up the symposium hall that afternoon, Marcus had heard quite an earful, though granted, eavesdropping, especially on two professors, no doubt fractured the narrative. Yet Dirks, ordinarily a circumspect fellow, had been voluble, sharing anecdotes dating back to college. Who wouldn’t listen? From the honorarium Nate—as Dirks called him—would earn, to highlights of his diplomatic work, all manner of details were conveyed.

Phrases about Nate’s father, the mid-century economist whose book Marcus had read, abounded. Not until the 1990s in Croatia, where Nate negotiated for the UN, did he “elude his legacy role,” Dirks opined. Then added, “He grew up.” Perhaps Dirks went on for too long? Because eventually both tale and teller seemed gnarled by some mysterious resentment, while in Marcus, anticipation stirred.

How many times, after all, had he emulated Lawson’s dad—or at least his urbanity as displayed on an old talk show, now on YouTube—for his unappreciative card-playing group? As the afternoon wore on, an idea thus occurred to him: He envisioned the professors and Nate, worthy peers at last, inviting him to join their dialogue. While he rearranged podium, microphone, and chairs, the notion became filigree in his mind, and now the prospect of seeking advice about Danyela filled him with a silvery enchantment.

With a few ironic jokes, however, a charming, Kennedy-ish nod to the South, all of which elicited chuckles, Lawson began with clichés. Marcus was crestfallen: Not many of the professors were from “these parts.” Besides, the symposium venue, financed by distant banks and far-flung alumni, had been carved from a forest to furnish a youngish city inclined toward real estate speculation and soft-drink profits with things it didn’t care for, like introspection and gravitas. So in that respect anyway, how did Atlanta—a bland, thrilling, paradoxical city if there was one—differ from other places?

Still, the laughter galvanized Lawson. Adroitly, judiciously, he eased into more substantive matters, whirling the city’s denizens around the planet, encapsulating Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, Yemen, Russia, plus the migrants beseeching Europe. Ancient imbroglios were unwound. And finally, foreign policymakers were assessed for their comparative brilliance, as if they were in a beauty contest or police lineup, depending on one’s perspective.

By the time Q&A rolled around, a number of folks were collecting purses, jackets, no doubt eager to resume their usual peregrinations. But a few souls lined up. A young veteran of the Iraq War, the back of his neck shaved, body too thin, white Oxford shirt billowing, recalled building bridges, literally and metaphorically; then, a fashionably gray-haired woman beamed into the microphone, said she was against war, for peace; just like Miss America, only she was past middle age, baggy-jeaned, claiming she and her friends at some tree-lined college ended the Vietnam War by themselves. Next, an ex-marine, movie-star handsome, muscles up, down, and all around, loomed behind her, as if to contradict her, but instead baritoned, “Thank you for your service in the Balkans, sir.” And finally, a lawyer specializing in antitrust cases hosted a yawning festival for all.
Neither boasting about his efforts on behalf of political prisoners, nor addressing vague rumors he’d profited from a questionable contract, Lawson replied eloquently, graciously, yet handled each with tongs. Still, by the time Q&A dwindled to a close, Marcus’s brain was roiling. Unsure why, he picked up his dustpan and glared at the folks heading blithely toward the exit, then others drifting through the conference hall munching cookies, their fruit punch slopping over as they lunged toward acquaintances and mashed crumbs into the floor.

Yet the atmosphere was heady. Whether because of his vertigo or the illustrious crowd, his temples pulsated. Faster than he could reach the mashed cookies, they became pink and blue specks of luminescent sugar underfoot, and the floor he’d crisscrossed innumerable times on prior occasions sparkled. With the help of what Ariel called his “grandiose imagination,” it became a canvas, then an abstract painting, then from another angle a sand mandala, its pastel circles waiting to be swept away philosophically.

Ergo, he felt posh as the crowd, and artsy to boot, until he considered Danyela, who could be swept away by forces more brutal than art, and vaster than she understood. Mincing his steps, he clenched his dustpan, picturing her face, her manual dexterity, as he approached the podium where Dirks and Lawson stood. But neither one turned around. Flanked by a trio of cathedral windows, they were talking very seriously indeed, as a silhouetted pair of Chinquapin oaks dimmed outside and the sky lit up with streaks so colorful, so holy, they appeared to consecrate the dialogue. And yet, after Marcus went roundabout, the streaks were shadows, the oaks a bulldozer’s refugees.

Bewildered by such apparitions, he urged himself to “be on the same page” as the professors. Swoosh, clatter, his broom and dustpan repeated. Cringing, he changed his approach—ignored the noise, lightened his step, fancying that his craggy profile, his creative flair, might pique the professors’ interest. Don’t be ridiculous, he imagined Ariel saying, before labeling him with some psychological diagnosis.

Nearby, citing the Fourth Amendment, Dirks evinced a faith in legal methodology not unlike Ariel’s in psychology, and a discussion ensued. Others approached casually in a way that Marcus could not, murmuring in tepid, confidential tones. With reasonableness, with charm, Dirks introduced Lawson to the fastidious Wilson, to Karyn Moretti, an ardent civil-procedure lecturer, and to Todd Harvey, the doddering, yet civilized, John Halperin Professor of Constitutional Law. Had Dirks’s resentment fled, or was he two-faced?

When Dirks pivoted, Marcus forgot to care. And when the others pivoted, he was electrified: Were they motioning to him? After all, he knew a few things about the shenanigans of war. And thus, the cost of their foreign policy, he would explain modestly but firmly, his brain suddenly crowding with witty remarks and clever rejoinders. But, alas, it was someone else to whom they were gesturing, whose arm shot upward in the window reflection, before they all strolled out together, heads bowed in collective wisdom.

Well, duh, as Danyela might say. Above the steering wheel Marcus’s hands fluttered as he gestured at someone not there—perhaps Ariel, or even Lawson’s dad—driving to see Danyela once night cleaners arrived and scattered through the hallways, pushing high-tech brooms, their expressions dazed and monotonous above whirring machines.

As he opened his window, night air drifted into the car, across his cheeks, and most refreshingly inside his shirt. Cruising through the rich neighborhood, its lawns bedizened with fading azaleas, even hydrangeas now that it was April, he felt pretty as a man in a car commercial. Wherever the dazzle from spotlights, garage lights, and chandeliers allowed, he glimpsed sumptuous pinks and blues. Soon the lawns would be festooned with balloons, garlands, and well-dressed, raffish kids slopping beer at their high school graduation parties, the kind, he reminded himself, slipping out of the commercial, he couldn’t afford to give Danyela for her high school graduation in six weeks.

As if to emphasize this fact, a pothole jolted him, signaling a neighborhood shift:

Spotlights were nowhere to be found, nor august homes. Music was palpable; something popped and rattled underneath his car. Quickly, he veered around a tricycle, then a teenager, he hoped. After three harrowing beats, the teenager appeared again by sleight of hand, sideswiping Marcus’s passenger door, and strutted toward the curb.

Then, only a few more houses until Ariel’s—immaculate, almost girlish—loomed above him. Last time it was painted, she’d called it “Provincetown blue.”

So haunted did the place feel, so imbued with their screaming matches, and later, after Danyela was born, hissing matches in the bedroom—he always tiptoed around imaginary shadows of them spewing at each other. There they were, bickering about whether he was going to work more, drink less; and would she please quit trying to mold him into a faithful husband in a romance movie? No matter how much time passed, the hours they wasted—as midnight pugilists in their youth—quivered around him like faint music he couldn’t turn off.

Still, he ventured on, passing a yellow-and-orange Bob Marley poster, created by Ariel’s brother—speaking of unemployment—and turned on the faucet, which spewed water with the vigor of a new mayor’s ambition. But no matter how hard he scrubbed, Citrus Sunrise Cleaner still clung to his hands. Predictably though, a bottle of lotion, called Frisson, stood tall in the cabinet: Ariel’s organizational talents prevailing yet again.
Given his failure to secure any imprimatur from Nate or anyone else, he felt diminished, but also a tad superior, rubbing cool balm over his knuckles as Danyela, taking a break from tinkering with an ancient Mazda, opened the garage door. Aglow in the garage light, she stood barefoot, dropping her faded blue espadrilles on the outside step. The sight—her toes, glittery face, thick eyebrows, hair wavier, longer than usual—inspired Marcus to bow. At last a lavender scent, rather than sticky cleaner, perfumed his hands.

“Greetings, my sweet,” he said, though he knew enough to dread whatever was coming.

“You think you’ll sweet-talk me like you do Momma?”

“I’ll take any talk.”

“All you do is talk. Whereas Momma does all the work.”

“Yeah, Ariel,” he muttered her name, not for Danyela’s benefit, but rather his younger self. “I’m proud of her.” Upon smiling, however, he recalled Ariel telling him once that his self-adoring smile was closer to a stain.

Like the track star she once was making hurdles, Ariel catapulted through her days now, starting with her computer job at the Chamber of Commerce, where her skills had earned her a luster—not that he cared for her bourgeois job—as well as her boss’s devotion. And that wasn’t all. Volunteering at the shelter, pilgrimages to her mother’s house, quick jaunts to Pilates, tracking Danyela’s whereabouts, all consumed her now, leaving no time to trade jabs with Marcus anymore. Plus her lotion, trickling inside his finger cut now, was making his hand throb.

“You don’t have any right to be proud of her.”

“What’s this about your enlisting?”

“Well, duh, I’m JROTC. After I enlist, I can study mechanical engineering. Or epidemiology!”

“You sound like a spokesperson in an Army commercial,” he said, arranging dishes in the dishwasher, willing himself to keep calm. He’d always recoiled from his mother’s moods, rising like steam over the embroidered initials of the Lytles, whose damask tablecloths she ironed. Not wanting to pass those along, he fitted a cup decorated with cars around two plastic prongs. Hadn’t it once been Danyela’s favorite? Either way, he’d muzzled himself through Lawson’s talk, the Q&A, and reception; he could muzzle himself no longer. “What the hell do you know about the Middle East? Or Korea?” he asked, practically tripping over his words.

“What do you know?”

“I know about Vietnam—”

Images of rice paddies, rain, and slender, sometimes malnourished, bodies hurtled through his brain. But the images had spiraled over the years, undergone metamorphoses, pulling him into a vortex, and then, incrementally, dimmed. Except for one image of a temple, where incense blew from ceiling coils, captured by his friend Reggie in an archaic snapshot whose fading outlines gutted his soul, his memories were anodyne as Travel Channel reruns now.

Recently, though, his barber had offered insight. Last haircut, he’d held his phone beside Marcus’s nostrils, said he’d been home to Vietnam. If in Xuan’s chair one usually sank into a torpor, given his syncopated, winding sense of time (though granted he was deft with scissors and charged only twenty bucks), this time Marcus roused himself. Before him, Xuan explained, was his dad’s old front door pockmarked with bullet holes, unchanged since the day Xuan and his sister had hidden in the basement while bombs detonated outside. He remembered because he was hungry. His dad remembered because, as a translator for the U.S., he was tortured afterward, before he escaped. Feeling like he’d received a key puzzle piece, Marcus left Xuan forty bucks and encountered the parking lot as a revelation. Seeking his beat-up Corolla in the glare, he meandered dizzily through rows of zigzagged cars with the puzzle piece swirling over them all, over people, cars, and the strip shopping center itself. At last, through a pair of smudged windows sassing daylight, he noted a familiar tangle of muddy soccer balls, gym shorts, and an air pump: his blessedly mundane backseat. Yet the puzzle piece still shimmered, representing, as it turned out, a mere platitude: others, that is, had suffered far worse than he, and still others were blown around routinely by incomprehensible events.

“Did you hear what I said?” Danyela was saying. “Afghanistan isn’t Vietnam, and I’m not you. Besides, they’ve reduced the number of casualties since then.”

“Yeah? You mean our ‘casualties,’ not theirs, right? Sometimes I think everything is repetition. Like Nietzsche said—”

“Oh, jeez, don’t start yapping about books. That’s why you never do anything; you think you see both sides, right? Or many sides, like a prism; but you’re just sitting by yourself on your own personal rainbow.”

She’d gone into the family room. At first her voice was amplified, but then, unable to hear, he followed. “And what do you see—no sides?” It was all he could think to ask, leaning against the doorframe, wondering what she was looking for as she floated around the room.

“I see like a bird—”

“You’re omniscient?”

“Duh, I’m going to fly helicopter missions.”

“Oh? And what is your mission, Miss Missionary?”

“You’re trying to undermine my self-esteem.”

“I’m trying to undermine your foolishness,” he said, tripping on the lush new carpet, heading over to survey a few lonely books on the shelf.

“Just because you lost your scholarship when you went to Vietnam, and you blame Pop Pop—doesn’t mean you get to boss me. Besides—” She stopped, as if about to divulge a secret, plus she’d found what she was looking for—her phone, naturally.

Prickly with misgivings, either about the sleek gadget she was collecting from the wobbly TV table or whatever Ariel had said, he turned around. “Besides, what?” he asked, his voice catching like a thirteen-year-old’s. Rather casually, she plopped down on the sofa. “Mom said he never gave you enough approval.”

Approval, what a relief: the sort of thing Ariel always said. “Uh, I appreciate your mother’s fecundity with psychological observations, but this discussion is political.”

“Well, I’m apolitical.”

“But you’re proposing to sacrifice yourself to a government of charlatans who wage unending wars.” He stopped, aware that his pomposity would be skewered. The room was darkening; he switched on a lamp, which illuminated the edges of the Marley poster in the vestibule. Aside from the sofa, TV table, and an old La-Z-Boy, the room felt bare; for years Ariel had said she’d decorate it last. “Read Locke, King, or Tocqueville. Hume, Du Bois, Achebe,” he added, if only to cocoon himself inside his mental library and repel the room’s shadows.

“You consume all those words, and what do you do? I looked it up. You clean up after a student population, 97.7 percent of whom will ‘pass the bar, and go on to become practicing lawyers.’”

“‘Thou shalt not lie down with statisticians,’” he began, unsure if he was misquoting that Auden poem about a lyre.

“What does that mean? You just try to be—what’s your word?—‘lyrical’ so you’ll sound cleverer than you are. Especially with the professors.”

“Oh, so you’ll genuflect before the military mind?” Although this was a cheap shot, he nonetheless twisted his eyebrows. (And yet he was aware that trying to be droll, he sometimes came off as brittle.)

“That cliché is so twentieth century. We got robots doing surgery now; people mapping their genomes in minutes. I wanna act, not sit around criticizing.” All legs and arms, she stood up, tugging on her shorts, approaching her backpack, evidently dumped in haste earlier beneath the window.

“Ah.” He made a flourish, imitating a professor whose grace—or kindness—he admired.

“Vita activa versus vita contemplativa.”

Facing the window now, they watched little Zack from next door, decked in his ghost costume, presumably last Halloween’s, bury a train in the soil. “I’ll be a helicopter pilot and then a mechanical, or maybe an electrical, engineer,” Danyela said, turning around to pull a T-shirt from her backpack.

A wave of regret punctured his chest—or was it indigestion, maybe a heart attack? He could recall Danyela digging in soil years ago, and now she was confronting so-called reality with a T-shirt and the phone in her hand. “Au contraire, mademoiselle; you may well end up a ghost engineer,” he called, as she flounced out of the room.

“At least I won’t be a ex-alcoholic janitor.”

“So you want life to resemble some TV show, right? And it’s an ex-alcoholic janitor, not a alcoholic janitor.” She was in the hallway now, rummaging through the closet. Leaning over he saw her yank one neon-orange sneaker then another out, before they were dropped on the floor with a clunk.

“Yeah, I like families that live in airy spaces, not that cramped box of yours in Midtown with the filthy gold curtains,” she said, hustling down the short hallway. “I want to be around people who have shiny hair, and elegant conversations—”

“You mean, like a script?”

“I hate tragic stories and—melancholy poetry.”

“Wallace Stevens said the world ‘consists of three or four hills and a cloud.’ Is that melancholy? And Langston Hughes,” he began, but she was twitching her fingers, beaming at a text message. No doubt futilely, he continued: “I would argue that speaking is less melancholy than sending vapid messages that assault one’s synapses, or incite wars based on cartoonish misunderstandings.” Aware that he was being ignored, he tried to recall one of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s phrases, which soothed him with their peace and calm. But Danyela was quick with her ripostes.

“Yeah, I’ll bet—because my dad is older than everyone else’s. He’s not exactly tech-savvy.”


“What’s the name of that screenplay you never finished? Cosmic Baseball?”

“Zen Sprints,” he said, accompanying her back down the hallway, flattered that she’d remembered, also wondering if he’d left his old windbreaker in the closet. “It was a poetry collection, not a screenplay.”

“Well, Lawrence and I are going on a sprint right now; so whatever.” Quickly, she slipped into her bedroom to grab earbuds, while a framed picture of her JROTC instructor, Captain Stewart, confronted Marcus from her dresser. Handsome, brave-looking in his uniform, Stewart taught the students, including Danyela and her boyfriend Lawrence, to never, ever give up, never allow self-doubt to creep in, every cliché on Earth, twisting Churchill’s fine logic to bamboozle recruits; and if that didn’t work, his Army truck parked in the high school lot might lure them. Or so Marcus surmised, as Danyela swooshed past him en route to the bathroom.

Wrangling with a coat hanger twined with another, he extricated his jacket. When that Army truck first appeared, he’d been aghast. Even more so when he’d seen the driver’s door, emblazoned with a shiny star. Gradually, picking up Danyela from school here and there, he’d resigned himself. A cheap gold star was transmuting his memories, his friend Reggie’s ordeal, into a bright fiction for a new generation. Once he accepted this, albeit reluctantly, his original shock seemed quaint. But watching his own daughter succumb? “Well, hey, no tragedy, no nuance for you. Your creed, apparently, shall emanate from high-tech shoes and ass-kissing captains,” he called, not in any mood to be fair. Given the officer resolutely staring ahead like the perfect dad, the photo rankled. Not to mention, Ariel admired him.

Bursting from the bathroom in red spandex, Danyela threw her body into various contortions, touching her toes, and, fingers working furiously, tied a pink bandana around her head. “Whereas—whereas you could never carry a briefcase or stay in uniform, because you want to be the romantic revolutionary with—gray stubble in his beard.”

“Your faith in the demotic is charming—”

“I’m not demonic! I just don’t like victims.”

“Demotic, not demonic. Look, sweetheart, you think you know what’s beyond that line that separates you from noncitizens?”

“I wanna see for myself—”

“I saw men cut off a dog’s legs once: for fun. Wanna see that? What about when your government hits the wrong target? Say ‘oooops’?” Crazily, he looked around the hallway. “What about weapons sales to Saudi Arabia?” Each question fizzled as soon as it was uttered. Maybe he should’ve asked Nate, but here he was instead, like a disembodied radio voice uttering non sequiturs at the wallpaper, a maroon-and-gold affair chosen by the previous owner, who had sold the home cheap when the neighborhood deteriorated. As Ariel later bought Marcus’s half, she now stood to benefit from its increasing value.

“You oughta get out more,” Danyela said, pulling two yellow socks from the closet. “But you’re too busy thinking everything’s tragic.” With a theatrical air, she held the back of her hand up to her forehead and fake-sobbed, but mercifully her antics—at her age a confused jumble—expired quickly.

Already, that is, she was tuning into a podcast, as Marcus ducked into the family room to fetch his keys. Then soon enough she was behind him, not for proximity to him but for the rug which was good for sprawling and stretching. One after the other, her legs went back and forth in the air like scissors, to the rhythms of an interviewee who was saying, “Family is the ultimate truth.”

“That’s what Lawrence’s mom always says!” Danyela trilled breathlessly.

Marcus snorted. With a twinge of anxiety, then a familiar old numbness, he recalled the occasional night watching his dad shove his mom around the kitchen. “Ever read King Lear?” he asked the podcast. “Look, here’s the paradox of your passport.” Catching Danyela’s eye, he said, “May I?” while swooping down to press the off button. “You can stay home, be relatively safe, listen to dross like that, or go suffer what happens on the other side of the line.”

“Isn’t that kind of bleak?”

“Ah, and war isn’t bleak? Humanity needs to humble itself before forests. Not spray Agent Orange—or whatever the chemical du jour is—around.”

“‘Humble itself before forests’?” she mocked, standing up to hold on to the La-Z-Boy, lifting her legs, kicking up sparkly bits of dust. “Captain Stewart says people like you are so spoiled by this country you’re naive about authoritarian regimes. And non-state actors.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet he does. Paranoia works, doesn’t it?”

“Captain Stewart isn’t paranoid. He’s loyal.”

“Loyal,” he repeated. It was the kind of dig his dad might have employed; though granted, when a homemade bomb tied to a bamboo cross exploded over a pile of sandbags supposedly sheltering him, he’d learned, courtesy of the Vietcong, there were worse things in life than digs. But Danyela’s mimicry made him wince.

Plus, she changed her tone quickly, just like his dad, making her intent hard to discern.

“Anyway, in my jewelry-making class, Britni told us ‘Lapis Lazuli’ was the name of a place in ancient Afghanistan where the stones were first mined. So maybe I’ll get to see turquoise and azure: Kyra’s favorite colors. You know, my friend who’s a pianist?”

“We’re pulling out of Afghanistan. Sort of.” Roaming into the kitchen, he plucked a chocolate kiss from the cookie jar. “So just go on to your jewelry class at the cute renovated warehouse, okay?” he called, rolling the chocolate under his tongue. Maybe the sugar would revive him.

“It’s not till Thursday.” she said, appearing in the doorway.


“You know what?”


“You should’ve been a professor, so someone would have to listen to you.”

“Thanks, Danyela; thanks, sweetie.”

“Anyway, war is everywhere,” she added lightly, pulling a glass from the cabinet. After turning the faucet on and off, she was so close he could see an over-picked red blemish on her arm, plus her navy T-shirt, smelling like detergent and the motley items in her backpack. “Don’t you remember? You’ve spent half your life battling yourself! You never seemed to know I was there: watching!”

Marcus recoiled. Her eyes were moist, the color of dirt in his late grandfather’s garden. Kale grew there, plus beans, tomatoes, a few sunflowers dandling over the fence. “I was listening to you. Telling me what to do; telling Mom,” Danyela was saying. Her words trickled in, but only so far. Long ago in sports he’d learned to keep moving on to the next play. Now, in the manner of his old coach assessing players, he looked Danyela up and down. When she was younger, maybe he’d mistaken her reedy physique for spiritual delicacy; that he could concede. “I mean, it’s not just you,” she was saying. “A lot of people are in combat mode. Kids at school. And driving? I can’t allow someone to cross the crosswalk without someone else honking.”

“ʻ’Tis new to thee,’” he whispered, trying to seem insouciant as she slipped through the screen door and, with an effortlessness he could no longer muster, blasted up the hill to meet Lawrence.

Maybe she’d expected more of a reply; he didn’t have one. The years he couldn’t get back, whatever she had absorbed, he couldn’t fathom. Sure, various images lay half dormant in his mind—his curling into himself, Danyela’s uncanny repose when he did—but rarely did they surface. Mostly he recalled, after their visits together, marveling to Ariel, if they were in a peaceful interval, “She’s so self-reliant.”

Had they required her to be? Like his uncle at family gatherings, he blinked nervously. Rather tentatively, he considered the blue satin princess costume Danyela had worn day and night when she was four, her fascination with cars; then, ghastlier visions—oxygen fleeing her body, a soldier wrapping her in a duffel bag, her existence reduced to a statistic—until he fingered the kitchen counter, whose heft startled. Had it been updated too?

As he looked around, Ariel’s breakfast-room walls, which she’d painted herself, mocked him in apple green. The computer area was so cheery his elbows felt awkward. Happily, with a few light taps, he summoned a flurry of pictures and declaratory sentences that transported him elsewhere.

As Danyela had indicated, “Lazuli” referred to an ancient land, original source of the finest specimens, featuring brilliant blues, a golden shimmer, although the spooky ease of Internet research unsettled. An op-ed like one of Nate Lawson’s practically composed itself: “For several millennia, the stone or its powder brightened the art of Persia, Mesopotamia, Rome, and Greece, symbolizing sky, heaven, ocean, even truth; and as a precursor to other minerals and solids—copper, emeralds, oil, even lithium—was plundered, smuggled, eventually manufactured, and adorned,” he said to no one.

“As lapis was transported along trade routes, its progeny, the word ‘azure,’ followed.” Dreamily, he imagined the professors admiring his incisive prose, his grasp of reality—until he recalled Danyela lampooning his esteem for them. Then her captain mocking his chimerical ideals, his nutty hope that somewhere, someone was not trying to plunder.

And what if the pragmatic, loyal captain was right? What if, this time, some crazy group, or despot, struck again? He leaned back in his chair, disappointed at his own wavering. Yet waver he did. After all, the world was complex, even brutal. If Marcus loathed warmongering, he’d also bristled when his father disparaged him for confronting bullies like Teddy Mayfield, who long ago had stricken him with a golf club. Now, shifting in his chair, he unstuck his underwear from between his legs. Then, carefully, given his sore arm, he raised his hand and rubbed the spot on his head where Teddy had hit him at age nine. Even after that debacle, his dad acted like no one meant any harm. “Just keep your chin up,” he’d say, with vagueness in his eyes. How to squeeze the heartache that ensued from such disingenuousness into an op-ed piece?

Outside, an eidolon slipped into the passenger’s seat beside him, to foment his ragged views. Out of the driveway they eased, he and the phantom, floating through surreal streets until pulsating dance tunes broke his trance. A crush of taillights, and above them, neon signs blinking over the midtown bars, washed the street with color. A plethora of slim-hipped young men, one in shiny purple pants, waved their arms, leaning over high circular tables, laughing, while others spilled over the porch’s edge, their longing palpable. Red turned to green, and the music drifted like a cloud alongside his car for two blocks, not dissipating until the third, a junky side street. Somewhere above the rickety mailboxes, a few remains—a chord, a bass note—dissolved, and hovered over various office buildings, whose arches, cupolas, and spires twinkled over Midtown and pierced the sky. Feeling small but oddly blissful, he squeezed into his parking spot.

Inside his dingy apartment building, the elevator lurched, ascended, and creaked open at his floor. Yet his newfound bliss didn’t fade. He felt jittery; his thoughts accelerated. If his best pal (maybe his only pal) Reggie died ten years ago of multiple myeloma, why should a shaky elevator work anyway? They were told “not to worry” about the orange containers, which turned out to be Agent Orange. Yet, even when Reggie got sick years later, always coughing blood into Kleenex, he was still genial, still calling Marcus to go bottling. On the one hand, should Danyela study epidemiology, the dance partner that accompanied Reggie and so many others to their graves, how appropriate! And yet like a ragtag army, those who bottled, fought in wars, or otherwise flouted life’s tedium sauntered defiantly through Marcus’s brain, trying to bypass the impersonality of statistics—or in other words, twinkling in makeshift ways. Was that all he and Reggie had been trying to do?

He almost queried his neighbor, who wandered by, taciturn as Marcus under discolored lights. Occasionally he encountered Travis’s estranged wife, lumbering into the hallway with made-up eyes, balancing a casserole that smelled like its plastic covering mixed with wine, but rarely Travis himself, and neither was inclined to speak.

Nor did Marcus check ESPN once he was alone. Not until he was outside the next morning, headed for work, did he recall his wacky dream, about a lady strolling through a forest, introducing trees—silver maple, mockernut hickory, and river birch—as if they were debutantes, while a Huey putt-putted in the distance. Afterward he’d half awoken with rocks lining his gut, then a welter of voices: Ariel advising him to “get counseling,” his brother telling him to blow it off, and his mother relaying primly that Reverend Jeremy asked after him. But he was too unsure about his premise; that is, whether someone deserved his fury, or the reverse, if he was the culprit, to settle on any panacea. So he swallowed an Advil for his arm.

Only the commotion of boarding the bus eased his desolation, which returned when he got off twenty minutes later. Scurrying beside the massive portico of the university’s monument to business administration, he shriveled into an ant until Dirks slid by in his car. “Need a lift?” he chirped. Though Marcus dreaded his faux, folksy tone, which contrasted starkly with the tone he used around colleagues, Dirks already was shifting legal briefs around. So Marcus got in. And, despite himself, sank gratefully into the creamy interior that yielded to his arms like a sponge. “The Lexus Link system is active,” an automated lady intoned, not unlike the forest lady from his dream.

“So what’s up with you?” Dirks interjected. “I’m just heading back from dropping Lawson.” Full of nervous energy, he ran his hands through his thick hair, which might have been tousled at a salon, especially for the symposium. “Quick scoot down to the airport.”

“Oh, yeah,” Marcus said, his tone still groggy. “What did you think of his lecture?”

“Hmm? Oh, it was Nate’s standard fare—I’ve known him for years.”
“Law school and college?”

Dirks cocked his head affably. Even as he watched the road, his mind seemed chronically alert, and yet possibly over the years through some alchemy mixing self-regard and desire, his alertness had transmuted into shrewdness. “Undergrad. Harvard College. We weren’t really friends; we pursued the same girl. Her dad was prime minister of, well, I shouldn’t say which country, but she was beautiful, and one day I was finally eating lunch with her—she was dipping into her lentil soup; her hair grazing the soup.” He glanced at Marcus, as if to heighten the drama. “I was about to reach over and slip the tendrils over her ear. And then Nate sat down. Mentioned his dad, his dad’s famous political pals, and her dad, and was like, ‘What are you doing here?’”

With every twist and turn, Dirks’s thin lashes twitched, as some dingy cafeteria from long ago no doubt glimmered in his mind. It was 1971, the same year he headed for Vietnam, Marcus almost said, infuriated with Dirks for using him as a sounding board. Hadn’t he intended to express something to Dirks and Lawson, not the other way around? Yet any response might warp the conversation further. It was as if a cannonball were pursuing him, and all he could do was close his eyes.

And yet—perhaps he could render the cannonball light as air? Like Lawson’s dad on that effete talk show, he said, with perfect timing, “It’s a fraught game, this poking at the dark mask of time, hmm?” If the quip wasn’t exactly witty, his timing was good, and feeling the cannonball dissolve he savored his minor triumph—until Dirks responded.

“I was valedictorian, student body president—in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin—not Exeter,” he moaned.

“Where did you want to end up?” Marcus asked, resigning himself to Dirks’s self-absorption. Maybe he was even half interested in the answer. His sore arm, still pressed into the ritzy seatback, was feeling better anyway.

“Oh, political appointment at State, like Lawson, or Secretary of State.” He chuckled.

“An enlightened anti-Dulles. Dulles was—”

“Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.” Marcus spoke quickly, like a game-show contestant. But Dirks had moved on, to his meeting in Tokyo next week with pharmaceutical executives and another with alumni donors, then another subject entirely: his son clerking for a federal judge.

For so long—not wanting to be facile—Marcus had avoided characterizing himself as a pawn in a geopolitical game. He’d even believed the professors might include him the previous evening, that his daughter’s plans might be relevant. Now he looked out the window and monitored the progress of a crow’s shadow passing over the muddy foundation of the new psychology building, and recalled Lawson’s hackneyed phrase—“these parts.” Leaning forward, he inspected the hole dug in the tinted earth, a pit of red clay, which, as it turned out, was one shade of red, not striated as he might have expected. When he responded, he kept his gaze on the relentless hue.

“Maybe this ‘girl’ represented a heightened sense of existence for you both, because of her father’s political fame,” he said, improvising, almost sounding like Ariel. For his own sanity, he didn’t ask if the “girl” wasn’t an evanescent prize for the two young men to fight over before they sought another prize, then another. “And, FYI, isn’t it sophomoric to characterize her as a ‘girl’?” he asked instead. Which wasn’t what he’d meant to say either. Frustrated, he shook his head. “I’ll just get out here,” he added, pulling out his phone and not looking back.

An ancient turmoil stirred in his gut, as his efforts to read, to break clichés, to whisk them into a soufflé of meaning, threatened to splatter into a bilious mess. He couldn’t recall the startling thing he’d wished to say anymore. Nor, given Danyela’s remarks, and his encounter with Dirks, did it seem to matter. All at once, Dirks and the others seemed comical, vain, like his card-playing pals, or himself.

Vaguely cognizant of news shows blaring from a succession of open windows, he idled at the corner, watching pedestrians approach the university, the hospital, then the bank across the street. Most striking was a doctor, whose white coat swayed and glistened as she darted through the crowd and up the hill. Even before she’d vanished, a fresh batch of cars replenished the news. Far-flung events were analyzed with precision and flair. Scores could be settled tidily and ambiguities explored, a cast of journalists with diamond-hard voices implied, by the finale when the saxophone played, its charming hipster vibe barely obscuring the voices’ conformity.

What a fool he surely was—in Danyela’s eyes, the professors’, even Ariel’s—prattling on about existence, life, death, approaching those enigmas with creaky tools—subtlety, lyricism, absurdity, indeed! When everywhere, a host of machines—from Internet routers to radio or cell towers to satellites—translated phenomena into magical data for all; while Raptors, F-15s, jamming technology, Apaches, et cetera, maneuvered at the behest of the big shots. In such a milieu, how to speak? If once upon a time he’d believed he could change things, now he didn’t. After all, if the professors had invited him to chat last night, even to describe Reggie’s distinctive, wandering soul, they would have been polite but dismissive at best. Oodles of narratives engaged them already, mostly through legal cases or statutes affecting countless lives. Focusing on one individual wasn’t exactly cost-efficient.

“So what?” he could hear Danyela, with her ear for hyperbole, retort. “Reggie was still Reggie.”

And so he was. Maybe with her audacity, Danyela could avoid being a pawn—certainly his pawn, anyway—or maybe life simply hadn’t ground her down yet. Whether he hoped it would, so she’d be safe, or wouldn’t, he wasn’t sure. But not long ago, when Ariel had told him Danyela was defending an autistic girl at school from bullying, he’d told Danyela he was proud.

“Don’t be proud,” she’d said. “She’s an amazing pianist, not some stupid label.”

Shortly after that, an invitation to the girl’s recital arrived. When Danyela attended, she’d recorded it on her phone and forwarded it to Marcus. And presently, he sat on a bench, mesmerized by Chopin’s fluidity. Through bar after bar of the polonaise, the girl—or young woman, rather—lifted veil after veil, whorling him closer to the sublime, while passersby, including a tiny woman in faded pink sweatpants leaning too far over the curb, gathered at the bus stop across the street.

The music continued; he held his breath. No sooner had the tiny woman boarded a bus safely than the music stopped and Reggie said, “Let me know you’re still breathin’.” Just like he used to. Then Reggie’s whistling fell from the sky, as sinuously, as elegantly as a tangle of wisteria vines making a spectacle above the bus stop now.

Around a high wire they coiled, frolicking toward an oak tree dangling bulbous blossoms into the shade, which transformed their hue into an ephemeral purple, and finally lavender as they cascaded toward a sunlit Dumpster. At the end was a flash of blue—or lazuli? If he were religious, he might’ve said transcendence, or even forgiveness. When had Reverend Jeremy’s concepts begun sounding hollow as a dying tree? And yet wisteria evoked something similar—ephemeral beauty juxtaposed with the ineffable, positing a riddle often mistaken for a definition. Transcendence, then?

Over the years, memorizing poems and such, he’d transcended a lot of grime anyway.
Feeling as ghostlike as Reggie, he strolled up the hill. Yet his tapping feet spoke of life, which, after all, he still possessed. If he no longer benumbed himself, if he no longer credited surface phenomena so much, he could find other ways to live. Along with others, he was free to wonder, even if nobody credited his wonder. Like his grandpa he could grow tomatoes, or look around. Maybe that wasn’t quite how he’d wanted to end up, but it would do for now. Aware of the limitations of metaphysics, not to mention its ambiguities, he was nonetheless cognizant of visible and invisible things, of those that didn’t add up—Reggie’s whistling, Danyela’s flying dreams, the intersection of light and matter, even his arm pain—and how incongruous they seemed, floating airborne, until someone wielding sixteenth notes broached them.


P. J. Warren lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She has attended writing conferences hosted by One Story, Tin House, and Bread Loaf in Sicily. Her work has appeared in The Furious Gazelle, Umbrella Factory Magazine, SNReview and The Tower Journal.