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We drive a long, straight road beneath slate-grey skies beside the flooded river. The floodwaters surge around trunks of oak and ash, a fast-moving membrane the colour of milk tea. The road is still dry, and safe enough for now. Traffic carries on. The levee isn’t expected to break.

But the water will soon get into the soil and rot the root systems, says the man driving me in his empty shuttle bus along the highway. The shuttle, which is really a panel van, collected me half an hour ago from the low-security airport bound by corn on all sides. I am its only patron.

The interstate takes us past lonely motels looming over car parks. We pass a Kmart, Trader Joe’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s and then the town. It is, at first glance, like something out of a Golden Age film, a freeze-frame of small town America that I’d absorbed as a child on the other side of the world in suburban Sydney lounge rooms. But as the shuttle slows down and the town resolves itself through the windows, I can see that it’s going quietly to seed. Empty storefronts, flaking paint. The trees are turning red from the top down, and the flooded river bleeds into the land. Nobody is alarmed yet. The river floods often.

The driver asks how long I’m staying. A week.

And why am I here? To see a friend.

He detects an accent. He can’t quite place me. Where am I from? How did I end up here?


August has lived in the town for two years. He has lived in big cities before, and that is where I think of him still—in a leather jacket, thumbing the screen of his phone, hunched over the bar in Greenpoint where we first met. But now he lives in this plus-size, windy pocket of the Midwest, and he is having the worst year of his life. Three times he has been hospitalised since January, in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. A week before I landed at the cornfield airport, he messaged to tell me he thought he might be hallucinating. He was sitting in his living room on a Tuesday night and he could hear murmuring. Hissing. Sounds issued by voices that originated from no human throat.

Are you all right? I asked when I saw the messages on my phone the next morning.

Yes, I’m fine, he said. It happens sometimes. It’s not a big deal.


The sunset is paling, settling into the colour of skin sapped of blood. I’m wearing a long dress and clogs. Back in the spring they were brand new shoes, but now the clogs are stained, the wood chipped, the suede watermarked from thunderstorms in the city. My toes are red with cold. The driver turns the heater on and the warm air comes upon me in a sudden gust, over the bare skin of my feet and up my dress. I haven’t seen August in over a year, since he got this job teaching at the small liberal arts college in a red state full of cornfields and Protestant churches, and it occurs to me as we slow down in front of a house that matches the address he’s given me that nothing is going to be how it used to be.


August lives on the top floor of a two-storey wooden building that backs onto an alley. The front door is always open, he told me.

There are bicycles on the porch, some rusty chairs, an empty bottle of sparkling wine filled to the brim with cigarette butts. I open the door, climb the flight of stairs to his apartment and knock.

Why do you have such a big bag? he asks.

I put it down in the hallway and look at him. His hair is unruly but he has shaved and he’s wearing his boots. It seems to bode well that he’s put on shoes for my arrival. He doesn’t look like somebody who, a few days ago, heard murmuring and hissing that wasn’t there.

It’s the only bag I have, I say.

He stands there, watching me wander through the rooms of his apartment piled high with books and strewn with orange vials of pills and half-drunk bottles of Gatorade. He doesn’t touch me for a full hour, and when at last he comes up behind me, he gently punches the small of my back, holds onto my waist, turns me, pushes me up against the doorframe and coaxes my underwear down my legs. So that’s how it is. The wind picks up, and the rain begins to sound on the windowpanes and in every part of the dark cornscape that stretches away from the town.


We get dinner at a bar, although he warns me that there aren’t many vegetarian options. It’s a perennial problem in this town, he says. We first bonded, five years ago, picking pieces of bacon out of soup during that evening in Greenpoint that at the time was not described by either of us as a date, but was. Now the waitress wants to see some ID. I hand over my green card and it takes her a moment to process what she reads.

Then she smiles. Welcome to America, she shouts. I nod. I have lived in this country for five years. I order a black bean burger and whiskey. He orders grilled cheese.

Do you want it deluxe? the waitress asks.


The sandwich arrives with a blue cheese dipping sauce and many fatty, pink pieces of bacon.

I feel rude sending it back, he says.

You could take off the bacon?

It’s a waste. Waste is immoral. A sin. I’ll just eat it.

His sensitivity to sin is new to me. The very word ‘sin’ sounds strange in his mouth. Once a loud representative of America’s young socialists, lately August has been talking about becoming a priest. He’ll need to lie on the application forms (though by his thinking that should only count as a minor sin) because one isn’t supposed to enter the priesthood when diagnosed with a medical condition, especially one that might lead you to believe that the government has installed a computer chip in your brain, or that aliens are keeping tabs on you from their perch in the sky, or that one is a vessel for the voice of the Holy Ghost moving one along a river of divine purpose.

To be fair, he hasn’t believed in any of those things for some time. In the last year, the problem has been his quicksilver moods, the cycles of mania and wild depression, the sudden bursts of weeping. In those very bad months last winter, I would check our message thread on Instagram to see how many minutes it had been since he had last logged in. If he was still checking Instagram, I reasoned, then he was still alive.

The doctors have increased his medication since those hospital visits, and he adheres to a routine of sufficient sleep, regular exercise and therapy. He’s stable, he says.


August is a keen observer of disaster. He tells me about being a child in California, when he woke up to an earthquake shaking the house and didn’t care. He tells me about the rainfall in the north that flows downriver and breaches the levees. How it destroys crops and homes, kills cats and leaves mould growing in books and the creases of folded letterman jackets. He tells me about tornados, how they sweep through this town and bring gathering clouds, broken trees, a sound like screaming. Sometimes, when the siren sounds, he has had to take shelter in a basement bar. When the sky turns green, he says, you’d better be scared. He fondles his beer. A week ago, a storm came through during the night, he says. It was the storm that caused the flood. The thunder was so loud that at first I thought the town was being bombed.

What did you do? I ask.

Oh, nothing. I just rolled over, pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep.

I want him to tell me he had gotten out of bed to look out the window. But he speaks as though pulling the covers over one’s head is the only reasonable course of action for most emergencies, and it is this attitude, of resignation and sadness, that I absorb from him and adopt, so that his black, murky logic becomes my own for as long as I’m with him.


There are four other men in the bar. They watch a Cubs game playing on the televisions hung over the shelves of liquor. They are quiet but for periodic howls of such violence and volume that I jump on my stool. I keep my eyes on the ice melting into my bourbon. I sneak glances at August who, it turns out, looks precisely the same as he always has, only hollowed out inside. A ghostlier version of himself. He buys me more whiskey. I drink three while he nurses the one beer all evening.

When we leave, it is past midnight, although the baseball continues apace. We progress down a darkened hill. There are stars. The road stays carless and quiet as we walk. The canvas strap of my bag snaps from my shoulder, and with no immediate way to fix it I carry it in my hands. The drone of a freight train in the distance mingles with the dead leaves caressing above our heads. The train makes a forlorn, high sound and passes out of town. I reach out to touch him. He allows it.


Birdsong wakes the cat, who takes up his vigil on the windowsill. The dark is close. I am dissolving into it. Outside, the rasp of door hinges grates against the dawn. In the stillness, I hear the thud of footsteps on someone else’s porch in the dark below. I do not know the names of any of the birds singing. Beside me he stretches, sleeping. His brown hair against my bare shoulder, warm breath. The covers lift as he turns away, and the footsteps fade. The cat keeps vigil with the birds and the dusk and our breathing. I haven’t slept all night.


Don’t freak out, August messaged me some weeks earlier, but I’d like to be dead and the main impediment is that I’m too cowardly to die.

After he leaves to teach his early morning class, I leave the apartment. I buy bad coffee at a diner where the cashier peers at me strangely. I’m a stranger here, after all. I walk north. I check my email on my phone as I walk, composing an elaborate apology to my adviser back in New York for taking a week away from school. An emergency, I tell her. The air is full of parachuting seeds. Piles of blackening fruit decorate the sidewalk, so rotten it is difficult to tell if they are apples, pears, or something else. High overhead a plane shudders and whirrs, an unconsecrated crucifix in the sky. The sound of floodwaters form background music to the morning. The river is somewhere on the other side of the woods, although it is safely downhill from here. Wild raspberries grow in clusters all along the path that leads into a cemetery.

I had thought it might be nice to read in the cemetery because it is almost warm and because it is so quiet. The names on the gravestones are all uniformly German or Scottish, which makes sense in a town with a population that is eighty-three per cent white, a town where nearly everybody was a corn farmer before the university became the largest employer. But the wind blows my hair into my eyes and mouth, and I don’t feel at ease. I keep looking for snakes in the grass. He told me to keep an eye out for copperheads. I walk through the cemetery and don’t see a single other person, or a snake—just gravestones, endless stretches of the dead who must once have come to this place and seen nothing but prairies, grass moving in the wind like weed at the bottom of the sea. An angel rears up on the crest of a hill.

August has told me about the angel. He said that before the town was really a town, not long before the Civil War, a priest had washed up in the cornfields looking for a safe haven to await the Second Coming. He had conviction in the arrival of the apocalypse because shortly after the priest had settled in the town, he was visited by an angel. The angel’s hair was black. She had bare breasts but the feet of a man. Her voice had the sound of the river in flood.

She said that God had eyes like searchlights. She warned that Baltimore would burn. There would not be a single elm or maple left in Boston. The ports of New York would be submerged by tides of blood. Servants would ravage their masters. Kings would abandon their castles. Young girls would go down on their knees. The only safe place was this stretch of cornfield by the river. Or so the priest explained to his followers who, once the Civil War arrived, inundated the town. They built a church from which to await the end of the world, and they erected a statue where the angel had appeared so as not to forget.

August told me that nowadays teenagers come to the cemetery at night to misbehave by the feet of the angel. At the statue’s base, I find empty beer cans and wrappers of peanut M&M’s and a single condom with its smeared milky contents exposed to the sun.


His apartment is filthy. Mould growing in the coffee maker. The kitchen filled with boxes, unwashed dishes, hardened stains on the floor. A scum of piss at the base of the toilet. He does not appear to have brushed his teeth in weeks. He told me he had cleaned before I had arrived and there is a bottle of bleach on the coffee table, marooned there with the books and the Gatorade bottles, so how much worse must it have been beforehand? It occurs to me that I could clean his apartment, but I don’t because if his apartment is so filthy that it needs to be cleaned by me, then he’s sicker than I want to acknowledge. Cat litter is scattered over the floor of his office. On his desk is a jumble of journals and books.

I turn a stack of papers, bound together with a bulldog clip, accompanied by a note from a woman thanking him for being so kind as to read the pages of her manuscript. On the back of her letter, a handwritten note, from him:

Thank you for letting me read these. How did you get to be such a terrific writer? I hope I see you again soon. I love you, although not in the weird, uncomfortable way. Although perhaps a bit in the weird, uncomfortable way.

I drop the pages and the note. Later I will ask if he is in love with her. No, he will say, she and I have a special kind of code, before taking the pages and moving them out of sight.

I haven’t met this woman, but he has talked about her before. He said she is the sort of woman who is so beautiful you feel like you mustn’t touch her. The touching might tarnish her. When he described her that way, I wanted to throw things. I suspected that he had never described me to anybody as a beautiful thing you mustn’t touch.

I cover his note with a book and walk away from his desk, out of the office and into the living room. I stand at the window with the cat, watching the alleyway and the maple trees, the furious activity of squirrels and chipmunks running between trees and the porch. The wind whips through the branches, yellow leaves held aloft by the gales. As I stand by the window a siren begins to sound. The longer the siren lasts, the longer I suppose that this is the sound issued when a tornado is imminent. But the sky is blue, not green. Nothing changes. The chipmunks streak by, the cat observes them, the trees flail in the wind and eventually the siren subsides.


August has been wearing the same shirt since I arrived two days ago. His feet are wet-looking without his socks on, the smell of them carrying from room to room and lingering long after he has left for work. Every day the cat pisses on the floor of his office. He never cleans it. It’s not going to stain the floor, he says when I bring it up.

That’s not the point, it smells like cat piss in here, I say.

But he just lets it dry.

Empty packets of cigarettes are left on every surface of every room. I see him drink iced tea and beer and Gatorade, but never water. I almost suggest that I clean the floor of his office, but I swallow the words. To do so would make him angry, and the last time I made him angry, a year earlier when I visited him in Chicago, he threw me out onto the street.

The next morning he forgets to take his medication. It’s because you’re visiting, he says. It’s upset the routine.

I’m sorry, I say.

No, don’t be. I’m glad you’re here.


We sit at the rooftop bar of the tallest hotel in town, watching football on a Thursday night. Large bodies clad in beige and brown sit drinking wine in the uncomfortable, overstuffed chairs. From the bar, we can see the view through fading light. Five floors up and nothing but cornfields. Torrential rain. Cold.

He’s run out of cigarettes and asks if he can have one of mine. Our fingers brush and the sudden contact runs through me like a convulsion. The longer I stay with him, the less he wants to be touched. We sleep beside one another, completely chaste after that first evening when he fucked me against the wall. When I remarked upon this turn of events as we walked to the bar, he said that his body felt disgusting to him. Repulsive. I wish I had another body to touch you with, he’d said.

Thunder and lightning move across the sky, and the fields move below. We leave the hotel and run home through the rain. Old men stagger out of bars. Two girls run barefoot through the puddles, clutching their high heels in their hands.


I’ve been thinking about buying a gun, he tells me in bed some hours later. Just for protection. Just to have it. I wouldn’t use it.

I remember, in this instant, that when he was nineteen and unmedicated and manic, he and a friend had driven from Los Angeles back to Chicago after Christmas break. They bought a gun in rural Nevada on the way. Back in the city, they got drunk and shot bullets at the walls until they broke a window. And when his friend went out in the snow to inspect the broken glass on the pavement below, August had put that same gun in his mouth. He had pulled the trigger, but it hadn’t meant anything, he promised. They were out of ammunition.

You can’t possibly be allowed to own a gun, I say. Someone with your diagnosis. You can’t possibly.

Not in New York, maybe. Or Australia, or whatever. But in this state I can.

If you buy a gun, I will take it from you. If I find it, I’ll take it and I’ll destroy it.

You know I’d never use it against you, right? I’d never hurt you.

That’s not what I’m worried about.


In the morning at the store I watch a girl assemble a display of baseball caps on the counter. The caps are embroidered with the logo for Pabst Blue Ribbon and the girl arranges them with great care. I buy cigarettes because he has smoked all of mine. Then I walk to a bookstore downtown and buy a copy of a Gerald Murnane novel I imagine he might like, about a man alone in a house on the edge of a small rural town, just short of coming undone.

The wind moves through the town, rustling the trees, the sound of water lapping all around. My clogs have been ruined by the rain, now my boots look set to soak as well. The river has seeped into the basements of nearby buildings and small waves sweep against the doors of the houses. Pots and pans float inside low-slung kitchen cabinets, mice and racoons wade across the floors. Some of the residents have cleared out to higher ground, but not all. The town is going under. Do not go gently, I think to the water as I watch the flood. Gentle is like dying.

On the other side of the river, a herd of deer, adults and fawns alike, graze at the soaked grass. I watch them. It is strange to feel jealous of forest creatures, but here we are. They are nervy and they care for one another. They run from all the right dangers and do not stick around to watch the calamity unfold, lest it engulf them.

I sit on a bench, watching the deer, simply wanting to be near the steadiness of their presence. The mothers watch out for the young, whose legs look so spindly they could easily snap. The fawns are protected by worry, a tenuous kind of protection. I have spent many months of the year receiving photos from my family of koalas gulping water from Mount Franklin bottles, possums with singed fur, brumbies running frantic through flames. Calamities engulf even those that are cared for. The river flows thick and full, bearing chemicals, opiates, Hershey’s wrappers and cans of Diet Coke. The bench I sit on is dedicated, I read, in Loving Memory of Isobel Cahill, our blue-eyed ravine watcher. I sit, wondering. Who watches ravines?


That evening I make dinner and wait for him to come home. I think it will be nice. When was the last time anyone had cooked for him? When was the last time he could have come home to dinner? It is soothing to stand in the kitchen, stirring a spoon through rice, waiting for stock to absorb, slowly but surely, spoonful by spoonful.

When he returns he talks to me about his day but does not ask about mine. We eat, but he covers his food in hot sauce and then throws the remainder in the trash.

I had a doughnut earlier, he remarks.

That’s okay, I say. I try to hug him, but he is wooden. He looks almost sick at the prospect of my touching him. I feel suddenly foolish for having tried, and remember the other body he wishes he had. I sit on the sofa and he sits at the table, where he puts on headphones and plays a game where he conquers Europe from the papal throne. I look at the pages of a collection of Katherine Mansfield stories but I absorb none of the words. I can’t concentrate. A rising sense of panic fills the black, murky waters of my mind. Why am I here? When he finishes the game, he picks up a book and goes to bed without a word. I follow.

Do you want me to sleep somewhere else? I ask.

Of course not.

Well, you can’t bear to touch me.

This is absurd, he says. He picks up his book and holds it in front of his face so that I can no longer see his expression.

Don’t hide from me behind a book. I don’t know what this is. What’s going on?

We’ve talked about this.

No, we haven’t, I say.

He throws the book down on the covers, looks at me and shouts. Can’t you see this is humiliating for me?


That the way I am, the medicine I take, everything about my life right now—it makes intimacy with other people so difficult.

Why is that humiliating?

It just is.

At last I come to bed because there is nowhere else to sleep, but I lie with my back to him under a different blanket. We both read our books in silence. I think I ought to apologise, but I don’t know how, and so I stay quiet. He falls asleep. The blue light of the street inches through the slats of the blinds. Freight trains. Rain.

I watch the cat on the end of the bed, peering out the windows, keeping us safe. Then August begins to scream. Blood-curdling, violent, the kind of screams you expect to hear before a murder or after a suicide. My instincts throw my body to the side of the bed, away from his screaming. We lie there a moment in our mutual heavy breathing.

Are you all right?

He pulls the covers down. Yes, he says to the ceiling. Bad dream.

Then he turns, looks at me, and his face contorts as though his heart has broken. Fuck, are you okay? He reaches for me, holds my shoulder.

Yes, I say although I am still panting, my heart thudding in my ears. I look at the light through the blinds and I can’t sleep. But he does. In his dreams, he reaches for me again. For the rest of the night he sleeps with his legs curled over mine, his face buried in my chest like a child.

Trembling. He is always trembling when he hands me something now, or shows me something on his phone, or passes me the keys to the apartment, or attempts and fails to touch me.

He tells me about the things left behind after the catastrophe. How the Chicago Water Tower was one of the only structures to survive the Great Fire in 1871. How a cracker from on board the Titanic was saved and preserved by a passenger, passed down as a family keepsake until they sold it, over a hundred years after the sinking, for $23,000. How a museum in New York has kept intact an entire Chelsea Jeans window display covered in dust and debris from the morning of 9/11 when the towers fell. How the National Arboretum is now home to a 320-year-old bonsai tree, which passed unscathed through the Hiroshima bombing and was given to America as a gift in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Arboretum discovered its nuclear provenance, he tells me. The irradiated roots of the bonsai grow, still, in the hallowed soil of the nation’s capital.


You cry a lot, he observes.

No I don’t. I don’t cry very often at all. Not in front of other people.

You cry all the time. There was that time on the bench beside the park in New York. You cried at my parents’ house in California. You cried last year in Chicago. You basically cry every time I see you.


People gather on porches in the afternoon, drinking, and wearing football jerseys. Mud forms in pools beneath the bright red leaves. We are told that flooding has increased overnight. People are taking shelter in the high school gym.

He looks ill. The medication he takes in the mornings sometimes makes him vomit, he tells me. Before work, he will occasionally retreat to the bathrooms and retch over the toilet. But it’s okay; he’s used to it now. When he starts to feel better, he sits on the sofa and he reads T.S. Eliot aloud to me. His voice is deep and low. The room is quiet and the only things outside the sound of his voice are the freight trains and the heavy beating of the rain. Is it like this, he asks, in death’s other kingdom?


I feel something all of the time and I don’t have a name for it, he says later that afternoon. Suicidal ideation, perhaps, is the name for it.

I speak in the calmest tone of voice I can manage, because I do not want him to know how afraid I have become. You’re thinking about suicide?


Right. I know that. But there’s a line at which I need to worry.

Look, just let me have it. There’s nothing more patronising than being politely talked out of unhappiness.

I don’t think I’m trying to talk you out of unhappiness? I don’t think I have the power to make you any less unhappy, but I also don’t know how you want me to respond. Of course I’m worried that you’re talking about suicide. I feel helpless.

Well I’d be vastly less happy without you.

Without me?

If you didn’t care. It’s vaguely pathetic. The thing is, I want you to be precisely as you are and for me to be different enough that your response to me isn’t what it is.

I see.

He raises his voice, as though I have expressed a poor political opinion on Twitter that he would be preparing to argue against if he still maintained an active account. I’m sorry, he says. I’m just unfixably unhappy.

You don’t need to apologise. And I’m sorry if I’m not responding in the right way.

No, it’s fine. He pauses a moment. That said, I’d take any drug if it would kill me. He holds my eye, then his face contorts into mockery. But God, he goes on, what a burden to say so. What awful concern it provokes.


We walk down into town through the rain and to an underground bar where we order veggie burgers. People are watching the football game behind the bar. We haven’t sat there long before Iowa State beats Minnesota and the room erupts into cheers. We sit on stools at a high, small, circular table.

I ask about church. I’ve been with him once before, over a year ago. Last time it was Pentecost, the sermon full of tongues of fire. Before we entered he told me not to take communion because I wasn’t baptised, but otherwise all I had to do was sit there. And so I did. I watched him get on his knees and cross himself. Watched him clench his hands in prayer.

I had been moved more than I expected to see him pray. He looked vulnerable down there on his knees, in his leather jacket and his boots and the hair beginning to thin at the crown of his head. I had not told him afterwards what it had meant to me. That I had felt close to him. I did not say it then and I don’t say tonight that I might like to go back with him tomorrow. Instead I tell him that I don’t know what scripture might be relevant to parishioners when each night the river spreads its banks and the flood does not subside.

He berates me, then, for not having read the Bible cover to cover, just snippets in school, the passages recited at chapel twice weekly by the mild-mannered reverend. Such beige Protestantism is far from his church. And how could I possibly understand English literature without having read the Bible? It’s as bad as not having read Beowulf or the Iliad. And if I haven’t read those either? An atrocity. How can I understand a single thing I’ve ever read?


We walk to another bar on the other side of town. He is tired; he is almost falling asleep with his head in his hands. I do not take off my coat, instead I pull it tight around me. He nurses a beer, but it makes him feel sick. It is only half past ten, but he orders a Lyft. I hug my coat. Black fleece snug against black denim.

The car arrives. August walks around to the road side and gets in. I open the door by the curb just as two women throw open the door of the bar and run towards me. I am already in the passenger seat, so they hold the car door open. My fingers hold the door handle, but the women won’t let it close.

Excuse me, be careful, one of them shouts. She shouts loud enough that it is clear she isn’t speaking to me alone, so much as performing her rage on the stage of the street. Don’t get into a car with him. He isn’t safe.

I stare back at them. One is very overweight. She wears a green sweater, with lank brown hair that touches her shoulders. The other woman’s hair is much shorter, a down of dark hair on her upper lip. They are women on fire with their mission. They are vivid, glorious avengers and they look at me with all that fire, and then the fire turns to disgust when I am silent.

Oh, I see, one of them says. Well, it’s fine if you want to fuck him. Whatever you want. It’s fine.

They let go of the door and I pull it shut.


I watch the rain in the park from the window of his office. I watch the swing set move softly. In the dark, I watch teenage girls stumble home drunk, and the quiet and the slick wet street and the trees. Maple. Oak. Buckeye. Birch. I keep the window wide open. He is asleep in the other room, the cat keeping watch over him by the end of the bed. I pour gin into a glass, no ice, nothing to break the burn. Just gin, clear as water.


In the morning he goes to church and I stay behind, watching High Noon on my laptop with the cat in his bed. When he returns from service, he asks if I want to talk about the women from the bar. I shrug. It’s not as though I don’t know what they meant. He sits at the end of the bed, close to me. He says it doesn’t upset him anymore, women like that. It’s been this way ever since the sexual assault accusations were filed against him, ever since he lost his job in the city and had to move out here, ever since those students filed the Title IX complaint accusing him of abuse and harassment, which is still in arbitration, still processing. His reputation is ruined. No woman will sleep with him. There are many bars in this town in which he is no longer welcome to drink, where the friends of women he has wronged refuse to serve him beer. But his job at the university, he is sure, is safe. It’s the benefit of living in a red state, he says. If he taught on the coasts he’d have been fired by now. It is only when it affects those he cares about, like me, that he gets even kind of angry.

I lie on the bed with the cat, looking out the window as he speaks. Outside, the rain spatters down through the bright orange maple tree. I wonder, again, why I am here and what exactly he has done, and what my support amounts to in the murky moral schema I can no longer see my way clearly through.


I’m going to go for a walk, I say.

Okay, he replies. He follows me to the door. It’s going to rain again, you know.

I have an umbrella. I take a step down to the door, turn and hug him. I love you, I say to his collar.

Hey, he says, and I turn back. You asked me about safety pins the other day, when the strap of your bag broke and you wanted to fix it. I do have some. They’re right over there. He points to the bookshelf. I just saw them.

I nod, smiling, and I walk through the door. I suppose in the Golden Age film, this is where the credits would roll because I would not be coming back. But the credits don’t roll and I do come back.


I walk for a long time, through streets smelling like wet grass under a sky ridged by black cloud. Soft, wet mud splatters my boots. Mushrooms sprout fetid and white from crevices in the low bark of the trees. Thick layers of green moss grow on the tree trunks. I touch the moss and it feels for a moment as though I am penetrating the very flesh of the tree. I would like to climb inside a tree such as this and hibernate there through the winter. In the tree I would not have to acknowledge to myself that I want to leave this place and go home.

All through the cemetery, sparrows flicker in the trees. The wind is fierce and howling. I stop to watch the angel. She doesn’t move. My hair rises and whips around, but the angel looks down at me, lidless and stern. She is the tall, dark pin in the moral map of the town. She stands waiting, quiet and solemn, for the Second Coming. Waiting for the time when the earth will be scoured of suffering and all of us might be lifted up into the union of eternal consolation. To some place far from here where we might even be happy.

I hear the rush of water through the trees and I approach it through the wooded path, heading north. The dusk turns pale and I should turn back, but I don’t. I walk for a long time, until the dark arrives, and I navigate by moonlight and the torch on my phone. The path leads down through the dogwoods, the cranberry bushes, the jump and crunch of squirrels and chipmunks I can’t see. Rain drips from the trees. The forest shudders in the wind. And then I see that the path stops, and the ground is brimming and the soil is overflowing itself. The river has overtaken the woods. I step towards it.

My boots sink into the mud, but it doesn’t matter. I wriggle out of them, barefoot. The wind begins to scream as though something has hurt it. The sky turns green.

I stand up to my ankles in the floodwaters and I wait. I feel the murky pull of the tide through my toes, the instability of the battered riverbank. I sink in. Is this what it’s like? I wonder. Does it happen like this?

And then he calls me and asks where I am.


In a fortnight’s time, once I am back on the coast, he will phone me from a mid-size, Midwest city several hours away from the town where he lives. He will not be able to stop the twitching of his hand. He will have trouble holding his beer. He will send me a photograph of his face. A close-up shot of a scratch on his cheek and a vivid purple bruise blooming around his left eye.

Did somebody hit you? I will ask.

I don’t know. I only noticed it this morning.

He will not know how he got hit in the face, or by whom, or when, and he will not be able to tell me why he is there, in that mid-size, Midwest city, only that I needn’t worry, and that there’s no serious injury been done, that there is no disaster for me to worry about, and that everything is fine.

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