This one begins in the middle not of the story but of John. In the middle of John was the loss of his parents. It was the center of his onion, the nougat of his Snickers. They weren’t dead, unless they were, but he had lost them one day without warning.
It happened like this. One day while courting John brought Gladys to meet the folks. You had to pass through several gates and go over a few moats and answer some culturally biased SAT questions about pocket squares and marmalade before you got clearance to the cul-de-sac, and once the lovebirds made it through, John saw the house was gone.
Gladys looked at John before she opened her door, thinking maybe he needed a moment or something. They had already listened to “At This Point In My Life” three times on the trip over, but.
“It’s gone,” John said.
Gladys looked at the house. “Well you know what they say: you can’t go home again. Come on, the apple dumplings are getting cold.”
“But the house is gone.” He pointed.
“That house?” She pointed.
They got out of the car. John said there was no house and Gladys said there was one. John threw a rock to prove his point and it went through his parents’ bay window.
Gladys rang the doorbell, even after John’s father had come out through the garage to see about the hooligans. She believed in making a good impression.
John didn’t see his father, or hear anything more than a slight hiss, as air out of a balloon. This left Gladys to her own devices, which she found rude but handled as she had handled the Tracy Chapman hat trick.
“I’m Gladys. I’m the woman for your son,” she said, “and these are apple dumplings. And the window was broken by a community college student who then ran away in glee.”
“Hellfire!” the old man said. “Was it one from the suburb campus or the inner city?”
“He looked inner city, but not in a race way.”
“No, race has nothing to do with it. Well, we’ll have to change the questions if it’s getting that easy. Maybe something about cufflinks.” He shook Gladys’s hand. “Where’s John?”
John was standing right next to him. They couldn’t even smell each other’s bay rum cologne.
“I think I know what’s going on here. But first you need to let me in so I can put these dumplings down they’re really very heavy.”
Gladys explained to John’s parents, as John sat on what looked to him like a pile of air but was really a loveseat, about how West Indies people couldn’t at first see Columbus’s ships because they were so far removed from their possible frames of reference.
“It’s called perceptual blindness,” Gladys said. “And it happens when the thing in front of you is so impossible your brain can’t even process it.”
“It’s also a load of hooey,” the old man said.
The old lady said, “Maybe we can find another word for hooey to use with this nice young woman we just met.”
“It probably is,” Gladys said, “more indicative of the ego of the Western invaders than the schemas of the noble savage, but I think today we’ve proven that its opposite is not a load of hooey.” Gladys served herself another apple dumpling. “You three,” she said, mouth full, pointing from John to his parents, “can’t see each other because you’re too UNimpossible.”
“So, too possible, is what you’re saying.”
“Yes, John, you could also call it too possible but I like mine better. You’ve seen each other so much, and heard each other so much, that now you’re blind to it.”
“Oh! Is that similar to the reason why so many car accidents happen within ten miles of the house?”
John turned to Gladys. “Did my mother just ask if this is similar to why so many car accidents happen within ten miles of the house?”
“She did! Did you hear her?”
“No, she just always brings that up if it’s in any way possibly relevant. She wants us to be careful.”
“Tell him that includes me too! I know I’m no ace driver like…like, oh, what’s that fellow’s name…the one in the movie with that girl from the soap I don’t watch…”
“Tell her she’s thinking of Keanu Reeves and making a reference to Speed but she always forgets that it’s Sandra Bullock who’s the one driving the bus.”
“Well I didn’t see it.”
John wasn’t like his sister, who had married that Arkansas magnate straight out of college, and who lived far away and called when she could. John had lived close, career-hopping before he landed on his nuts, even spending a tortured mid-twenties sojourn in the family basement. He’d gone on family vacations which were little more than the three of them huddled against tidal waves of silence, rehashing the same thoughts and reminiscences out of a long-instilled fear of the raised voice or the curt comment, as if family could, in the course of a dinner, break, irreparably, like a Hummel knocked from a coffee table. Actually, Hummels are pretty sturdy, so it was more like a glass Hummel, not that there is such a thing, knocked from a coffee table and then curb-stomped.
It had all come to be too much, which of course means it had all come to be too little.
So Gladys acted as a kind of conversational middleman for the Lakes, confirming for one party what the other had said, the joke the other had told, the NPR tidbit tossed out, the family memory undusted. Memories of a time when time moved like a train through stations, toward a destination, instead of what it did now.
They passed through a series of Sundays and holidays in this fashion, until one day while John reclined on an invisible armchair, settling in with a beer for a post-dinner discussion of nothing, and noticed that Gladys, helping his mother wash invisible dishes, was beginning to get a little fuzzy around the edges. Of his vision.
He got up. “We have to leave,” he said, and took his lady by the arm. She found it rude and terribly exciting. John drove her to his old high school’s parking lot and they fucked in the back.
“What’s come over you?” she asked when it was over and “Smoke and Ashes” played softly on.
He inspected her face. “You’re clear again,” he said. “You’re clear.”
He started the car. “It’s them or you,” he said, and they never went back to the Lake house again.
One morning Gladys woke up and found breakfast in bed. “Nothing’s too good for my green-eyed girl,” John said, through the rose in his teeth. Gladys knew she had blue eyes, or brown on a bad day, but she decided to let this horse find its own way to the barn. John babbled at the water cooler that day about what it’s like to make love to a greeney, which he said was the proper term for it, and he stopped at JCPenney’s on the way home to get a green scarf, “To bring out your eyes.”
This went on in various incarnations, until Gladys drew the line when John brought home a snake, “To bring out your eyes.”
At that point she pulled him close to her and let him gaze into her irises, which hadn’t a speck of the emerald city.
“There now,” she said.
“So blue,” he said. It was like seeing her for the first time all over, which of course was the point.
Gladys caught on to the game and created her own strangeifying exercises. At a restaurant one night:
“I’ll have the…” a little wrinkle appeared in the space between her eyes, “stee-ahk?”
“The which?” The waitress looked up from her pad.
The waitress looked where Gladys pointed.
“That’s it!” John said. “I knew it wasn’t stee-ahk.”
Gladys objected. “It doesn’t count if you know what something isn’t, only if you know what it is.” She patted his hand.
“She’s always telling me that.”
“You want the steak.”
“Yes. And am I correct in assuming that ‘steak’ is…of the cow?”
The waitress looked at John. Then back at Gladys.
“And beef is cow?”
“Beef is cow.”
“Why don’t they call beef cow, and steak cow, I wonder aloud,” Gladys said.
John knew. “Well you can’t order a cow, dear, they’d bring you the whole thing.”
“I guess that’s it. Cow is the one that moos?”
“How do you want the steak?”
“On a plate.”
This could go on for some time.
Shortly before Gladys left John, he took her to a special all-night dentist.
“We want the cyanide teeth,” he told the receptionist. “The fake teeth you bite down and release the cyanide with. In case there’s a revolution and we’re on the wrong side of it. We watched 12 Years a Slave last weekend, see.” The receptionist was black, but not in a race way.
“That poor Patsey. The soap scene? Forget it. Death first. That’s what we said. That’s what we both said.”
John looked at Gladys to keep up the act, but she had a faraway look in her muddy brown eyes.
“You don’t want the cyanide tooth, babe?”
There was an all-night abortionist next door. John made the crucial mistake of letting his eyes flit to the left, the direction of the establishment, as his first reaction to the news.
Gladys left. She left the dentist, and two and a half months later she left John, who got the tooth anyway. Because that shit with Patsey really was ridiculous.
John went from being in the middle to being at the beginning, which is what we’ll do too.
Mr. Hetherington was dead and the snow was gone. It had happened gradually and then suddenly, like the Baltimore Colts’ bolt for Indy, and the only evidence now was some rubble in major parking lots: mountains of plowed snow dwindled to heaps of black ash, stubbornly asking that the genocide of warmth not be forgotten, but forgotten it was because people forget, even when they’re not trying as hard as John. It’s one of people’s finer qualities, in terms of how to get up in the morning.
Sara worked for the true Sorriest Man Alive, an entity she was now taking John to meet.
“We thought you might be a threat at first,” Sara said, “copyright infringement and all. The nature of our work, well, we need to chase down anyone who might be claiming the title, sort of like Susan G. Komen does, but with more harsh interrogation techniques. Then it turned out you were just, well, sorry.”
“Why don’t you want her to have the baby?”
“This is small talk? Is this small talk? Is this the Sorriest small talk ever or something?”
“What are you planning on doing with me?”
“Answer the question or I’ll have Linda Hunt zap you.”
Yes, it turns out that Sara’s rabbity companion, all this time, was actually Oscar-winner Linda Hunt, master of disguises, principal in Kindergarten Cop, and supporting star of NCIS: Los Angeles.
“Gee, I don’t know, do you want the different answers alphabetized or what? I mean have you read the latest report on climate change? The one that says we’re more fucked than we thought?”
“They all say that.”
“She has read the report.”
The person who said those words was the Sorriest Man Alive. He was, perhaps not coincidentally, also the Oldest Man Alive. He had a staff and a beard and a cloak and all that. He spit into his palm and shook John’s hand. That’s just something he did.
“This is just something I do,” he said to John. “It’s a reminder. Memento diluvia.” He smiled. John fought the urge to wipe. “She’s read the report; all of us here have read the report. We read all the reports. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
“What are you doing?”
The old man took out an iPhone. “Siri, show John our work,” he said.
Siri displayed a picture:
“That’s our TURK, Siri, Jesus Fucking Christ every time.” The old man hit the phone in disgust. Sara took the phone away from him.
“What I would have shown you,” he looked darkly at the phone, “is a picture of the mighty wall we build.”
“To keep people out?”
“Okay, then what?”
A pause. He’s old, what are you gonna do.
“We’re building a wall to hold back the sea.”
John looked at Sara. She nodded. He looked at Linda Hunt. She farted. Then excused herself. He looked at the old man.
“My name is Noah.”