Christ, it was cold. It had been cold before, but this seemed different. Winter had settled in, and there had really been no holiday. Only Alaska, to see a bus, and to see the grizzly man. That had proved about as expected.
To stay warm, John had joined an online dating website. Under “looking for” he chose “other,” and then wrote in “temporary wife.” He had tried to add “so as to not get rusty” but it was too many characters to fit in the box.
He didn’t know if Gladys was coming back, but before he met her it had been thirteen months since he’d had sex with anyone, and it had felt like a new virginity. So much so that on the day before their second date – the first being at the site of the accident – he was walking and passing a gas station with bright yellow and orange colors, and he thought maybe he didn’t remember how to do it correctly. And he laughed out loud, right there on the street as the people filled up their cars and the smell of gasoline.
Anyway, that rustiness was eventually sweetly and passionately dispelled after grapes and wine and hummus. But he knew this rustiness could lead him to be the kind of person whose death is only discovered after a neighbor notices the smell a week later.
The first person who messaged him had the screenname UYourBestThing. “It’s from Beloved by Toni Morrison,” she explained in her e-epistle. “My book club read that last year and agreed that that line in general summed up the philosophy of a novel that espouses, really, a quite sophisticated and unique moral system.”
John was ready to delete the message. But she indented her paragraphs, and that was appealing.
“I actually came on here to see if I could find out if my daughters are on here but it said I couldn’t search for women unless I was a lesbian, so I became a lesbian. But then I could only search for other lesbians, and so far I have not found that any of my daughters is a lesbian. At least not one on here. But I message young women who look like them and send them little encouraging notes about how they are perfectly good enough and smart enough and useful enough on their own and do not need a man, or in their case a woman, or a man, perhaps, if they change their minds again after college.”
Apparently John’s profile was viewable to everyone, even lesbians, as the powers that were didn’t give him much of a shot. So UYourBest (which is what she called herself for short) came over to John’s on a Thursday afternoon to try out their temporary marriage.
“I see you still have your Christmas decorations up,” she said when she walked into the room.
What John had up was a picture of two penguins, which he had drawn with crayons and taped to the inside of his door, and an empty carton of eggnog that he’d put a Santa cap on and sometimes called “Elfie,” and sometimes conversed with.
“Me I had trouble figuring out when to put them up this year,” she said, “because Thanksgiving was so late. Did you know it was mathematically as late as it could be this year? Or maybe a day not as late as that, I don’t remember. But it was late. And you know I like to wait until after Thanksgiving, but I felt like everyone else had theirs up by the 15th and I didn’t want to be left out. So I figured I’d put up at least the lights. But as I was getting out the stepladder I felt like a fool, and I would have asked Denise if she thought it was too early, but I didn’t want her to laugh at me. Like, ‘There she goes, MFA in Poetry and can’t even decide to put up the decorations without consulting the neighbors, or her husband, quiet desperation, that.’ I don’t think so. And I could have asked Steve, but Steve doesn’t give a shit.”
“Steve never really celebrates holidays until they’re right on top of him, so I don’t count his vote. I could wait until the 24th and just put on a little Mannheim Steamroller and Steve would settle in with some egg nog and say, ‘Alright, it’s Christmas now!'”
She shook her head.
“He doesn’t know; he doesn’t notice. But it isn’t the noticing. It’s that even without noticing what people like me do to make the season special, even if you don’t care or hate it, you need us to do it so that it can seep into your brain day by day. Like little reminders, so that when the 24th rolls around it hasn’t snuck up on you: you didn’t miss it, you don’t feel like you missed it, like there was some great happy fun wonderful experience waiting for you only you missed it and now you have to wait until next year. Nobody wants that, I’m saying, but they don’t realize that you can’t not miss it if I don’t put these stupid ugly decorations out, even if you think they’re stupid and ugly. It’s a lot of work goes into other people not giving a shit, is what I’m saying. I don’t mind doing that work. Someone has to.”
She had run her fingers along the venetian blinds.
“These are just filthy.”
John and UYourBest looked at each other.
“Elfie says this will never work.”
“She was too much like us.”
The next woman didn’t like cleaning but she chewed too loud. Then some sister wives brought over a fourteen-year-old they wanted broken in. Her name was Siddalee, and she and John played some Scrabble but ultimately it was too much like babysitting, Siddalee said, and she didn’t feel she was expanding her skill set.
Then came Mr. Hetherington. Mr. Hetherington was Gladys’s kindergarten teacher. Well, not anymore.
“Brace yourself, John,” Mr. Hetherington said. “I’m gay now.”
John, who had not braced, nonetheless endured this news pretty well.
“That’s great, Mr. H.”
“Yes and I met a man through the internet. He’s a little younger than you. I don’t even need you to start: I’ve heard it all. I go through it myself every night, this May-December thing, oh God, do I have the stamina, do I have the calf support.”
“The calf support?”
“Young people walk everywhere. You don’t know how much young people walk until you aren’t one.”
Mr. Hetherington sat down next to Elfie. Elfie immediately warmed to the man.
“So this man, his name is Clint – oh my God, he has a cleft in his chin, I could bury a cashew there and die happy.”
This must be gay talk, John thought.
“But the point is I worry that he worries that I daddy him. And I want to prove to him that I can be with a young man and not daddy him. So I’d like to set up these nannycams around the house, if I could, so that I can later show him the evidence of my being a hot sexy non-paternal walking maniac.”
That night Mr. Hetherington made them omelets for dinner. He wore Gladys’s apron, and tousled John’s hair as John ate his omelet. “Don’t worry John I’m doing this in a sexual manner not a fatherly manner.”
“That’s a relief.”
Mr. Hetherington sipped some white wine.
John said, “Won’t you eat yours?” Not because he cared, but because that was the polite thing to say.
“Oh no I hardly eat anymore. That’s another thing about old age: surprise! You turn into a bird. Peck at your food, hollow your bones, and in the morning you’re wide awake singing. Or coughing, at least.”
John tried to wash the dishes but Mr. Hetherington wouldn’t let him. “But I’m washing them in a sexual way,” he told Elfie.
Elfie had a camera in him now.
Outside the window the Vortex was raging. They called it the Vortex on TV at least. John, who had taken to reading the book of Job at least once a day, usually with his mini-wheats. He knew that was a little on the nose, so he balanced it out by reading Sherlock Holmes at lunch and Florence Henderson’s biography, which Mr. H. had brought, at dinner.
But tonight he was reminded of the whirlwind that finally arose to answer Job’s accusations.
John looked into the Vortex, to see if there might be a face there. In fact the snow blew in all directions, it did not fall, so that at any given moment, from a certain point of view, it might seem that it was snowing up and not down, that the Earth was giving back to the heavens some of their own shit. John opened the window again –
“Oh honey you’re a maniac keep that closed!”
– just to see if he could hear anything. Not that you can see sounds, he thought.
For Christmas, before she left, Gladys had gotten John some new earbuds. He knew because he found the gifts where she always hid them, which was in a garbage bag with a piece of paper taped on it that said NOT GIFTS FOR JOHN.
The new earbuds were much better than his last ones. His last ones were pink. He couldn’t remember why. He might have stolen them from a little girl, he said, and Gladys laughed. But the new ones looked like little hairdryers and they went into your ear smooth like butter, and after a long time of having shitty earbuds, now it sounded like the sound was actually in your head, coming from your head, starting in your head. Sometimes John thought if he considered this idea too much his head would explode.
The weathermen had said the Vortex was coming, and then it came. And now it was back. Job only had to put up with the motherfucking thing once. But that was unrealistic writing. Because the answerless answer never left, really.
That night, lying in bed next to Mr. Denny, John wondered about the voice in his head, and how he could hear that voice – the voice of his thoughts, that is. What does it mean to hear that voice, or to hear music in your head when you aren’t listening to it. In what sense is that a sound? Is that voice not born somehow of the wilderness, of the Vortex? So perhaps it would be that voice to really answer his accusations one day. Although he was no Job. As far as John was concerned, the question had nothing to do with why children died. That part was simple enough. The question was why they were born at all.
Mr. Denny instinctively and unconsciously snuggled against John. So John lay awake. Mr. H. snored, but even that was swallowed up by the great blanket of winter.