n their drive to dinner, Gwen was trying to tell Jimmy about the wolf, which had come again to their backdoor. “Last night—”
“I know all about last night,” he said, veering the Mustang through a roundabout. “We fought big, loved bigger, and missed the second half of the game.” He liked to speed. He liked baseball, and the food they sold at concession stands. Had they loved big? By someone’s standard, maybe.
“Not that,” she said.
Jimmy looked at her. She tried to meet his gaze but was distracted by the pink blur of bougainvillea bordering the street behind his head. Gwen knew a wonderful word for their particular makeup, and that was inflorescence. Flowers had been one of her earliest hobbies in California. Poetry had been another. She planted a whole garden and then left it to the sun. Later, she tried to write a sonnet and got as far as the volta, finding no place for the poem to turn.
“Then what is it?” Jimmy asked. “You’ve got my briefs in a bunch with all this waiting.”
Gwen didn’t like the way Jimmy said “briefs.” She didn’t like his actual briefs, either, which were spotty with bleach. The route forward now seemed impassable.
“Never mind,” she said.
Jimmy jerked the wheel for another roundabout. At the center of its island, a kingfisher stood. Why not fly? Gwen wondered this whenever she saw a bird anywhere other than the sky. She felt terribly for flightless flocks, the roadrunners and penguins, the ostriches and emus. What had they done to God?
“You drive me nuts sometimes, Gwennie. Heaven knows I love it and heaven knows I hate it. No one warned me I was marrying a Rubik’s Cube. No one said, ‘Hey Jimbo, that girl is actually a puzzle of pretty.’”
They were married. Gwen sometimes forgot, startled when someone called her Mrs. Durkin even after sixteen months. Much of their material lives had changed since his accident, yet the line between their matrimony and courtship remained thin: they still shared a toothbrush, held pinkies on walks, and used condoms during sex. All marriage had really done was weigh their ring fingers down.
“I don’t mean to be opaque,” she said. “I’d prefer to be laid out like a beach towel.”
“Careful. You’ll get me hard as a handshake right as we greet our hosts.” He patted his crotch with one hand and parked the car with the other. Gwen was surprised they’d made it already, and didn’t know why. It felt as if they’d been passing through roundabouts for hours.
“Which ones are these?” she asked.
Jimmy balked. “Does friendship mean nothing to you? We’re having dinner with DeeDee and Dickie. We met them at the yacht club last week.”
Since coming to Los Angeles, they were always meeting people at the yacht club. Marsha and Barry and Stanley and Fran. “Right,” Gwen said, climbing from the car.
Outside, the weather was the same as it always was. If Gwen had to choose one word to sum up this city, it would be homogeneous. She followed the thin trunk of a palm tree up until her neck hurt. Returning to earth, she saw that the bungalow they were headed toward looked exactly like their own, and like every other home on the street.
“I miss brick,” she said.
“You miss Ohio?”
“I miss the un-stuccoed world.”
“But stucco is glamorous.” Jimmy nearly tripped over a sprinkler head, and Gwen nearly laughed, but their trajectory continued its course without either thing happening.
Jimmy and Gwen had been middle class, and now were wealthy. All it had cost was Jimmy’s leg. When he called her that day, he was delirious with injury. “My leg’s all over the place, Gwennie,” he said. “We’re going to be rich. I got run over by the fattest wallet in town.”
“What do you mean?” Gwen asked, admittedly distracted by the stapler in her hand.
“It means this guy’s practically bandaging me with his checkbook. I’m looking at him now. I wish you could see his face.”
Gwen heard a siren from Jimmy’s end and finally became alarmed. Jimmy’s tone was making the situation difficult to process. “Where are you?”
“The side of the road. My leg is behind me. There’s a tree with black leaves overhead.”
“Really?” Gwen asked. She felt something fall on her lap. A tear, then two.
“Do I hear sniffles? I’m okay! Meet me at Riverside Methodist when you can. You won’t have a chance to say goodbye to my leg, but you never liked him much anyway. The ambulance is here. Ciao for now!”
Gwen stood dizzily from her desk. The tree with black leaves filled her mind, no matter that it was hardly the story’s worst part. She’d never heard of such a thing. Was Jimmy calling from the underworld? She didn’t think she had the wherewithal to retrieve him.
“A bit early for lunch,” her manager Sally said.
“I think I’m gone,” Gwen said. Even she was unclear on her meaning, the extent of it. She had no idea that she would not come back, that she was on the edge of a new life, one suffused with sunlight and idle passions. Goodbye, Ohio. Hello, Hollywood. That’s how Jimmy put it, once he could stand again. He never mentioned the black-leafed tree again, but Gwen woke up some nights thinking it had found them, that it was right outside their window, tapping.
When they knocked, Dickie yelled, “Who goes there!” from inside.
“We come in peace!” Jimmy yelled back, trying to sound extraterrestrial. Along with speeding, baseball, and hotdogs, Jimmy liked comedy. Before Gwen moved in with him in Ohio, he had a sign on his wall that said Jesus Christ Is Real and His Name Is Jerry Lewis. Now he wanted the microphone. On Thursdays he sped to Dirty Frank’s open mic to join a long line of joke-tellers, an event Gwen martinied her way through.
Dickie swung the door open. His smile left no tooth behind. “Welcome to Casa de la Dick and Dee.” He bowed, revealing the bald spot on top of his head, perfect as a crop circle. “You two look ravishing. I love linen and summer skin. Are you fans of spicy drinks?”
“If it kicks, we twist,” Jimmy said.
“Shazam. And are you planning to join us, Gwen?”
She hadn’t realized Jimmy had stepped into the house already. She was still staring at Dickie, trying to see if she remembered his face. In thinking of the yacht club, all that came to mind was the swordfish on the wall and the light gleaming off the silverware. Jimmy’s reply to Dickie also caught her up. It seemed both meaningless and true, representative of how they handled all of their business in Los Angeles. If it kicked, they did twist, whatever that meant.
“Whoops,” she said, entering the foyer.
The house’s interior was air-conditioned, its walls painted peach. Gwen smelled asparagus and Windex. Following Dickie down the hall, she was impressed by a series of framed nudes, which indicated a level of artistic audacity Gwen did not associate with the yacht club crowd. Photography had been another transient hobby of hers, its lifespan extending no longer than a single roll of film. Of the twenty-four images she captured, only one had been worth keeping: Jimmy sitting on the toilet, pants gathered at his ankles, face held in hands. It was not Jimmy that made the photo fresh, but the void between his legs. Like a pit, the darkness was mesmerizing for its apparent bottomlessness. If you reached in there, Gwen was sure, your hand would not find a bowl, nor water, nor Jimmy’s southern appendage; it would enter a different dimension. Gwen pulled the photo out whenever she felt existentially fraught.
“Sexy stuff,” Jimmy said, halting at the final frame. Gwen looked, and was taken aback to see a woman sitting beside a wolf, one quite like her own. The wolf was mid-lick, its tongue flat against the side of her breast.
“How did they get this shot?” she asked.
“How did I get it, you mean?” Dickie winked at her.
“You took these?”
“I did. This one was easy. That’s our neighbor and her dog, Champ.”
“Dog?” Gwen looked again, and now the wolf was not a wolf, but an obvious mutt, scraggly and moon-eyed.
“Well, it’s certainly not a cat,” Jimmy said.
Gwen ignored him, though Dickie laughed. “I’d like one,” she said.
“A dog?” Jimmy asked.
As a child, Gwen collected porcelain animals to spare her father’s rampant allergies. She did not play with them, frightened by their fragility, but did tend them dutifully, each day taking a cloth to their hooves and feathers, teeth and manes. She did not like dust in general, and she did not like dust on her flock in particular. The ritual had eclipsed all other memories of childhood. When she tried to look back now, all she saw was herself on the windowsill, moving through the ceramic kingdom as seasons passed beyond the pane. The set had been beautiful, especially in the late-afternoon light. Milk white, smooth, and pointedly precarious, like life.
Then one afternoon like all the others, she snapped a giraffe’s head off, watching it roll down her lap and shatter on the hardwood. It had been a moment of minor inattention, yet that was all it took. In a guilt-induced fugue, she broke the heads off all the animals before crushing their bodies underneath her church shoes.
“Sweep that up before I start sneezing,” her father said from where he’d been reading on the couch. He was a murky man, difficult to decode on all matters except hunger.
“And I hope you learned your lesson,” her mother added from nearby.
What was the lesson? Gwen didn’t know, but afterward she regarded all animals with distant reverence, certain they knew what she’d done. She didn’t allow herself pets, and only occasionally patted the head of the neighbor’s collie. Until the wolf came, she sometimes let herself believe that redemption was near, that she might soon be able to get a mouse or even a kitten. When she first opened the door to the wolf’s scratching paw, she knew at once she’d mislead herself. Punishment was to be doled out by a gray-furred beauty.
DeeDee stood in a beam of sunlight, the brightness shocking her blond hair white. “Hello, Durkins!” she said as she squeezed a lime into four margaritas. “I’m about to blow your heads off. I believe in jalapeños like the middle states believe in politicians.”
“Paul Pepper for president!” Jimmy said.
“That’s just so funny.” DeeDee handed them drinks. “Why not Paulette Pepper, though? I’m tired of Paul Peppers. Aren’t you, Gwen?”
“Yes,” Gwen said reflexively. She’d been trying to recognize DeeDee, but DeeDee looked like everyone, just as Dickie looked like everyone. Jimmy had tried to look like everyone, too, afraid that Ohio somehow marked him; fortunately, he could only do so much for his face.
Gwen took two sips, then stopped as her tongue began to sting. “This kitchen gets so much light,” she said, noticing the heat radiating off the countertop.
“Nice, right? The key is to cut back your excess foliage.” DeeDee pretended to swing an axe. “We got rid of our rosewood last year and the sky opened up.”
“Smart,” Jimmy said. “We have an oak tree that could afford to timber.”
“No,” Gwen said. “That oak tree is older than us.”
“Who cares about that?” Dickie asked.
“Not Dickie,” answered DeeDee. “He never calls his dad, even as the man dies in a nursing home. Anyways, you shouldn’t feel wicked for replacing one natural element with another. It’s not like you’re chopping it down for a Jamba Juice.”
Jimmy’s drink was halfway gone. Gwen could see sweat gathering on his forehead. “I do love smoothies,” he said.
“I’d blend my life if I could,” Dickie added.
“Blend or juice?” DeeDee asked.
Gwen had the urge to run out of the house, to not stop until she’d bypassed the city limits and reached somewhere less human. What she wouldn’t do for a cactus, a canyon, or a cloud.
“How about that photo?” she said.
“What photo?” DeeDee asked, stirring a finger in her drink.
“Somebody’s smitten with my lens,” Dickie explained. “But these things don’t just happen, Gwen. I will know when the time is right. For now, chips and dip.”
Jimmy rubbed his hands together. Last night he’d rubbed his hands over Gwen’s thighs and made a similar sound. That was when they were loving big, or not. For each thing there is always a likeness. That’s what Gwen learned from poetry. Hands, thighs, leaves, trees. She missed breaking lines most. She speculated still about where that sonnet might turn, but had accepted the fact that revelation was not easy to come by.
When Gwen refocused her attention on the kitchen, DeeDee was asking Jimmy if he had ever seen the light. Somehow, a chip was already in Gwen’s hand.
“Have I ever.” Jimmy kicked his prosthetic out and hiked up the pant leg. DeeDee and Dickie gasped, the prosthetic an item of considerable craftsmanship. Gwen had gasped when she first saw it, too, given how its refinement recalled that of her porcelain animals, but something about Dickie and DeeDee’s amazement—they were kneeling now, stroking the leg—troubled her. Jimmy seemed pleased by the attention. He’d never been scared of the world.
“I painted those baseballs,” Gwen said, trying to involve herself.
“These are baseballs?” Dickie asked. “I thought they were eyes.”
“Who likes baseball?” DeeDee frowned. “The Angels can dig a grave, as far as I’m concerned. I went to a game once. A foul ball hit my brother in the face.”
“Jimmy likes baseball,” Gwen said.
“Liked baseball.” He glared at her. “Things change.”
“Three cheers for metamorphosis! Let us all be beetles by morning!” Dickie stood straight. “I’m tired of all this sports talk. Go on and tell us the story of the leg.”
The story of the leg, in Jimmy’s words, went something like this: county road, squealing tires, leglessness, sleep, leggedness. Then standing, and walking, and finally running until his feet hit the warm sand of the California coast. He never mentioned crying in the hospital, or the phantom pain that sometimes wracked him, or the tree with black leaves. If his version of the story was topsoil, Gwen’s was loam, a dynamic that expanded to most of their lives.
“Magnificent,” DeeDee said, clapping her hands. “I love triumph over adversity.”
Dickie wiped tears from his cheeks. “Sometimes I think the world is one big boobytrap. Who would ever think you could lose a leg on a county road?”
“Not I,” DeeDee said. “I haven’t seen a county road in years. What were you doing out there, anyway?”
Jimmy glanced at Gwen, probably thinking what she was thinking: that she’d never asked this question, and he’d never volunteered an answer. She felt clammy. Why had he been out there? And why hadn’t she bothered to wonder?
“What else does one do on a county road?” Jimmy asked. “I was burying treasure.”
The oven beeped, and though Gwen knew it stood for nothing other than time and the lapse thereof, she found the sound distressing. Until DeeDee turned it off and pulled a pan of enchiladas loose, Gwen was sure they’d entered an emergency.
The wolf’s first visit occurred on Jimmy’s birthday one month prior. Jimmy’s annual wishes were another thing that had not changed since the move: he still wanted a bagel sandwich for breakfast, a marathon of movies in the afternoon, and a striptease from Gwen at night. She had enjoyed this stratified arc for each of the five years she’d known him, and perhaps this time most of all, for it proved Jimmy hadn’t abandoned all of himself in Ohio. Los Angeles was diluting them both, she knew. Eventually they would enter the yacht club as water.
Post-coitus, she walked to the kitchen for lemonade. Had they loved big on this night? Yes, as evidenced by Jimmy’s broken condom. Though he wouldn’t admit it, she knew he wore them to last longer. Gwen preferred his unsheathed self, the warmth of it. For her next birthday, she thought as she filled her cup, she would request he leave all protection at the door.
The wolf’s scratch, when it came, was like a rake in gravel. The second scratch was more legible, if slightly, sounding less forceful than beseeching. It drew Gwen to the handle. Through the small window, she saw the wolf’s haunches first. How badly she wanted to touch the sleek fur. Without thinking, she pulled open the door. The wolf seemed unfazed by her sudden appearance, assessing her person for a full minute before loping away.
“There was a wolf at the door,” she told Jimmy when she returned to the bedroom.
“Wolves don’t live in Los Angeles.”
“This one does.”
Jimmy pulled the comforter up to his neck. “Can we spoon with the lights on?”
His disregard was bothersome, but then he didn’t understand the stakes of this visit, having never been told of the porcelain tragedy. Gwen crawled into bed and let Jimmy enwrap her. She didn’t sleep that night, thinking mostly of the wolf’s nose, which had been abysmally black, not unlike the hole between Jimmy’s legs as he’d sat on the toilet that day.
“Is there asparagus in here?” Gwen asked, poking her enchilada with a fork.
“Asparagus?” DeeDee scrunched her brow. “Do you think I’m a sociopath?”
“I do,” Dickie said.
“I knew a sociopath once,” Jimmy said. “He lived in my house for eighteen years and called himself my father.”
This sent DeeDee and Dickie off. Gwen hadn’t met Jimmy’s father before he died, but she knew Jimmy adored him, keeping a Polaroid of them arm wrestling in his wallet. For reasons unknown, the elder Durkin always became malevolent in Jimmy’s jokes, alongside the rest of his loved ones. Last night’s fight started over the way Jimmy panned Gwen at Dirty Frank’s. “None of that was real,” she said to him afterward, her martini buzz long lost. “This is what you signed up for,” Jimmy countered. “Laughter over truth.”
Once DeeDee and Dickie recovered, DeeDee returned to the subject of near-death. “The reason I bring it up is that we had our own experience, and it has come to mean everything to us. We believe everyone deserves a chance to see the gates. Isn’t that right, Dick?”
“More than right. Until it happens, you can’t see how good we have it down here. There is no peace in paradise. Heaven is a myth that butters a bad biscuit.” He took a bite of enchilada, then spat it back out. “That’s hot.”
“What happened?” Gwen asked. She didn’t like their disparagement of heaven, no matter if she’d stopped believing in the afterlife long ago. Once she’d been certain that a wide valley was waiting for her. She still conjured the vision on nights when she couldn’t sleep.
“What happened is I almost drowned in a whirl of sea turtles and triggerfish. Dickie and I were scuba diving in Maui. The week had been stacked with mai tais, luaus, and oral sex. Remember, D?” She touched his wrist. “For one week, tongues lolled and heads rolled.”
Dickie was in the midst of swallowing a fresh bite of enchilada. He nodded at DeeDee encouragingly. Jimmy had never been keen on oral sex in any direction, a trait Gwen found mystifying and occasionally upsetting. He was presently stabbing his own enchilada. When was their last vacation? She supposed they were still living in it.
“The short of it is my foot got caught in a crag. I’d swum away from the group because I’m an individualist and wanted to see the reef up close. Luckily Dickie was able to sense my pheromones even underwater. When he found me, I’d been out of oxygen for a minute. Our pothead guide failed to fill my tank.”
Dickie let out a sound that was neither laugh nor cough. “She was drifting like a trash bag,” he said.
Gwen had a bite of enchilada in her mouth. She didn’t remember bringing it there. After swallowing, she saw she’d consumed half her plate.
“In retrospect I’m grateful for the guide’s nitwittedness. He’s the one who unintentionally shepherded me to the edge, from where I could see eternity. I haven’t been the same since. Back in the hotel room, I felt love for Dickie for the first time in years. I’d been sleeping around on him for quite a while but went cold turkey that day. I even let him shower with me.”
“It’s true,” Dickie said. “And showers had always been no-fly zones for DeeDee.”
“Gwen hardly bathes at all,” Jimmy said. The lie did not anger Gwen so much as depress her. She wanted to fold him up like a piece of cloth and stick him in her pocket, somewhere he did not need to prove himself so desperately.
“This second honeymoon came to a quick end when we returned,” DeeDee continued, not acknowledging Jimmy’s comment. “Without Dickie seeing what I had seen, there was a partition between us. A painful partition. I’m sure you all have felt it.”
Gwen almost nodded, thinking of the wolf and Jimmy’s disregard, then saw that Jimmy was actually nodding. She felt jolted. Did he resent her uninterrupted affiliation with life? It seemed improbable, but everything did. Her plate was scraped clean.
“It took two weeks to realize the solution,” DeeDee said. She looked to Gwen, then to Jimmy, as if waiting for one of them to provide the answer. “I had to bring Dickie to the edge!”
“The edge?” Gwen asked.
“From where I saw eternity.”
“Meaning is so passé,” Dickie said. “Why not ask for proof?”
Jimmy knocked on the table. “Agreed. Proof is my favorite flavor of pudding.”
Gwen felt that a certain delirium was overtaking them all. It was gaseous, undetectable save for their mounting disorientation. Language could suddenly rip free from significance. That was a lesson she learned from life. Still, she joined the others as they stood, led by DeeDee in a processional through the living room and out the sliding glass door. The backyard was as manicured as a fashion model, made up of geometric lines and grass shorn to the root. In the center, where they were headed, a pool glowed up at them like a square slice of fallen sky.
Dickie had only taken forty-four seconds to see the edge. “I held him down for ten more, just to be sure, but he’s got weak lungs,” DeeDee said, dipping her toe in the water. Gwen’s initial surprise at hearing DeeDee had half-drowned Dickie was snuffed by the group’s indifference.
“That’s right,” Dickie said. “I gave six years of my life to smoke rings.”
“Puff, puff, pass,” Jimmy said, still caught in a ditch of associative platitudes.
“Tell them what your edge was like,” DeeDee said to Dickie.
“My edge was somehow a cliff and a fence and a trellis and a gate. My edge was all atmosphere, really. A basin you could fall in and never reach the bottom of. What I knew for certain was that passing over would be the worst thing that could happen.”
DeeDee moved now toward Jimmy. “What about your edge, Mr. Durkin?” she asked, touching his shoulder.
Jimmy closed his eyes and Gwen braced herself. He might make a joke, claim he swam through the River Styx, or fall apart in forged tears—anything to be brought further into their fold. What she wanted him to say was that he’d seen no edge. He’d lost a leg but not nearly a life. Hadn’t the doctors said so? When she found him in his hospital room, he had been sipping apple juice and watching the World Series. “Batter up,” he said, grinning at her. Did she miss his leg? Only when he did. Did she miss Jimmy? All the time.
“My edge was a tree,” he said. “A tree with black leaves.”
Gwen felt herself stumble somewhere inside. “What?” she asked.
“A tree with black leaves,” Jimmy repeated. “You wouldn’t understand.”
DeeDee and Dickie buttressed Jimmy’s flanks like bodyguards. Somehow Gwen had ended up on one end of the pool with them on the other. She wanted to say that Jimmy had abandoned the tree as soon as he’d left it, that she’d been its keeper all this time.
“I know the tree,” she said.
DeeDee hushed her. “You don’t, dear. That’s what Jimmy is trying to tell you. He’s been living in one world while you’ve been in the other. You’re being difficult.”
She didn’t want to be difficult. All she wanted was to care tenderly for something. She longed to rub clean the fin of a porcelain shark. She longed to sing Jimmy to sleep as she had on his final night in the hospital. She wondered how the water would feel if she did step into it.
White light flashed around her. Lightning, she thought, then saw the camera that had inexplicably arrived in Dickie’s hands. “Bingo,” he declared.
“But I’m not naked,” Gwen said. She worked hard to blink away the flashbulb’s intensity. Amorphous blotches continued to fill the sky, reminding Gwen of the dark calligraphy of starlings. She knew a wonderful word for their particular flight pattern, and that was murmuration. Those were the godliest birds.
“That doesn’t matter,” Dickie said. “The show must go on.”
Gwen took one step forward, though her next was interrupted by a languorous howl coming from the west. Her wolf. She felt she owed it the option of saving her or dragging her life away. Moving backward, she barely managed to say, “That’s my wolf.”
“Wolf?” Jimmy was speaking now. “There are no wolves in Los Angeles, Gwennie. We’ve been over this. What you heard is not what you heard.”
Gwen felt herself tipping toward bleached clarity. She did not know what revelation would hold, only that its arrival was imminent. Who knew the true distance between the twelfth line and the final couplet? Perhaps she’d been tumbling there this entire time. Make the floor the ceiling. That was advice she’d gotten on the matter of the volta. With your last two lines, you must flip the house upside down. ■