Cougar, Zeke’s little brother, will be home on Labor Day weekend. Cougar’s in Iraq, and this lends Zeke an air of authenticity when he marches around campus demanding peace. He has a personal stake in the war. He isn’t some pansy from a long line of liberal professional peaceniks. Zeke’s blue-collar. His father was in Vietnam and made hot dogs at the meatpacking plant for twenty-six years. His mother manages an Old Country Buffet by the mall. And his brother is a Marine in Baghdad. When he waves his sign that says regime change begins at home, it’s about brothers. It’s about blood.
A little over a year since the war started, and Zeke is out with a group of forty people protesting the war. The alternating showers of snow and rain make it feel even colder than it is. One minute Zeke is getting soaked, the next minute his skin glazes up with ice. The protesters are waving signs that demand peace, but the weather makes their shouts seem feeble and empty as they march to the Capitol Square. Zeke’s Carhartt coat, which used to be his father’s, is warm, and he’s wearing long johns under his jeans. He’ll be okay. He’ll get a giant soy latte after the protests are done; he’ll warm up while chatting with some undergrads at Michelangelo’s. It’s an easy, useless life—papers and books and lattes; Zeke doesn’t want to think about it. It seems to him that his job is no more useless than another day packing hot dogs, or restocking the green beans at the buffet, or getting shot at by insurgents.
Jobs, Zeke believes, are, on the whole, useless.
It’s April in Wisconsin, but winter lingers. Madison has just barely limped out of March, the month everybody just wants to live through. Spirits get low and desperate. It’s warm for a day, then turns cold again. Zeke teaches composition in a windowless classroom. His new wife, Katie, teaches composition, too, though she will be taking a year off from her fellowship because the baby is due in October. Katie is a star in the department. She gives papers at conferences and publishes in journals and does all of the professional activities. She has outgrown all her jeans, her belly ripening under the layers of sweaters she wears to keep warm. Zeke’s mother keeps the thermostat at sixty degrees.
Zeke and Katie met at a composition teachers’ training session. She laughed when Zeke started rolling his eyes. They both have a tendency to be smartasses, to disrespect experts and authority figures. But Katie is smarter, has more talent, and when she is not being a smartass, she is doing excellent work. Zeke understands the difference. Katie is from Michigan; her father is Mexican, her mother Norwegian. Zeke and Katie have been married for two months; she has been pregnant for four. Katie is small, compact, and muscled—bone-crushingly beautiful with her icy Scandinavian eyes and long Mexican lashes. It’s almost too much. Even now that she’s cut off all her black hair, her students all want to sleep with her, and sometimes they flirt with her right in front of him.
Zeke and Katie and the baby on the way (whom they call, for now, The Nugget) live with Zeke’s mother, Violet, on the north side of town near the airport and the community college. Even when Violet’s not working, she smells of biscuits and gravy from the Old Country Buffet, no matter how many showers she takes, no matter how much lilac-scented lotion and grape-seed oil she rubs on her hands and arms. After work, she sits at the kitchen table, her laptop open. She barely sleeps. She reads Cougar’s e-mails over and over. She writes long, meandering letters to him that offer support and encouragement. She keeps Fox News on all morning and wears an American flag pin on her sweater. Zeke leaves the house early, before eight, while Katie is still sleeping. He stays gone all day long then cooks dinner for himself and Katie. He’s a decent cook, but he never cooks for his mother. She eats almost all of her meals at work and some nights she doesn’t come home until ten or eleven, unless it’s a Tuesday or Friday, her only days off. Last year, she asked for two consecutive days off: the regional manager said no. Eleven years, and you can’t get two days off in a row. Zeke desperately wants her life to change, but knows it won’t. This is it. That’s what she gets.
Early every morning, as Zeke sits drinking his morning coffee and reading the newspaper, Violet, standing at the kitchen counter, gives him a rundown of his brother’s life. Cougar’s got the flu and spent the day reading magazines in the sick bay. Cougar saw a man get his hand shot off today. Cougar ate a special fried-chicken dinner last night. Cougar didn’t get to sleep all night. Cougar has a rash on his thighs. Cougar misses Penelope so much, he draws pictures of her in his notebook. Cougar’s unit got a surprise visit from the Hooters Girls last week. Cougar could use some energy bars, some Carl Hiaasen paperbacks, some moist towelettes.
Zeke nods politely at his mother and asks her if she’s gotten any sleep.
“Oh yeah, Zeke. Plenty of it.”
“Good,” he says. “Well, I better get moving, Mom. I got students coming in for appointments.”
“Mister professor,” she says, touching his face as he leans in to kiss her goodbye.
“Mister pessimist,” she says.
“It’s my title.”
“Did you eat? I brought some food home last night.”
“No, I’ve had coffee, that’s enough.”
“Not really enough, Zeke, but have a nice day. Don’t work too hard.”
“Never,” he says. “Tell Cougar I say hello.”
“You should e-mail him.”
“If I have a second,” Zeke promises just before shutting the door. He’s got all the time in the world to e-mail his brother, but he never knows what to say. Usually, he forwards him dirty jokes prefaced with a brief, obligatory update. Mom is doing fine. So are Pelly and Eddie. Everyone great. It’s hot here. Brewers still suck. Brett Favre coming back for another season. Hope you get back for the start of the Pack. Katie is due in October. You’ll have to give me some tips on fatherhood when you’re back. Ha ha. Stay safe. Your big bad bro, Zeke.
In the mornings, there’s enough of a wind that you can smell the aroma of curing lunchmeat from the Oscar Mayer plant’s lone smokestack. Zeke’s father worked at the plant until his heart exploded inside of him after working a double shift making hot dogs. That was last year. On clear, windy days, the neighborhood smells like his father used to smell when he came home from work, as if his father’s exploded heart flew off into the atmosphere and remains heavy above Zeke and his family like a nitrate-rich smog.
Zeke parks the Datsun a few blocks away from the English department’s building. He had bought the Datsun three years ago, mainly for its ironic crappiness; it suggested despair in a postindustrial poetic way. But here he is, three years later, and he can’t afford anything better. Poverty ceases to be ironic at thirty, which is Zeke’s age now. Poverty becomes more desperate with a baby on the way. His life smacks of American failure, not of the Russian novel he’d hoped for. Katie is only twenty-four, and Zeke is sure she will grow to resent him someday. She will miss much of the precious aimlessness of her twenties, spending it breast-feeding and changing diapers and singing frantic, beseeching lullabies at an hour that is, for most of her peers, known as “bar time.”
Zeke’s small office is in the northwest corner of the sixth floor and has no windows. Sometimes, during office hours, he will turn off the overhead lights, to stop their droning buzz, and sit with the just the small halogen desk lamp lighting the dark. He’ll stare at the block wall in front of him and pretend that he can see the lake through the wall. He pretends he can see clear across the hall and conference room and through the big wall of windows that look out on Lake Mendota.
The lake is the same frozen gray as the sky. The Oscar Mayer smokestack sticks out like a derelict, smoking tree. In Wisconsin, the gray sky gets paler and paler all winter long. By March, everything is washed out. Zeke has never been ice fishing, but the men on the lake in their shanties are the only happy people he sees. His father used to ice-fish, and Cougar would go along, but Zeke didn’t have an interest. When a student comes to see Zeke, he pushes open the cracked door and finds Zeke staring at the wall in the dark and he apologizes.
“I’m sorry, Coach,” his student will say.
“No, no,” Zeke says. “Come in, come in. I was just thinking a bit.”
Zeke will rush from his desk and usher the student into his office. He will flip on the lights and the fluorescents will hum like a flat chorus. The student will sit in the chair with his coat on and his backpack on his lap. He will be full of sighs and they will talk in low tones.
“What can I do for you?” Zeke will say.
Zeke knows the answer is usually nothing important. Students need help developing a thesis statement, picking a paper topic, finding an appropriate peer-reviewed scholarly journal for their research. Sometimes they will tell Zeke that their father has had an affair, or that their boyfriend/girlfriend is distant and depressed, or that they are embarrassed to eat in public, or that the stale, dry winter air in the dorms makes them feel as if they are covered with crawling ants when they sleep. Zeke offers a sympathetic ear, the number to psychiatric services at the health center, and assures them that he will give them an extra week to complete their paper if they need it. Zeke’s a good man. He can’t do much, but he can teach.
On the first of May, Professor Nicholas Watts, director of freshman composition, tells Zeke that he has reached his state-mandated limit as an adjunct lecturer of expository writing and that he will not be offered an appointment next fall.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Zeke says.
“State policy,” Watts says. “You seem bored here anyway. Isn’t it time you do something else?”
“I’m not bored,” Zeke says.
“I can be a reference,” Watts says.
“A good one?”
“Sure,” Watts says. “Why not?”
The thing is, Watts is the guy who gave Zeke a job in the first place. After Zeke’s father died and Zeke dropped out of the graduate program, nothing but a useless M.A. under his belt, Watts took pity on Zeke’s working-class ass and gave him a shot at teaching freshman composition so he didn’t lose his health insurance.
“Okay,” Zeke says. “I get the picture.”
“I know you do,” he says. “But do you care? I’m worried about you.”
“A lot on my mind,” Zeke says.
“You worried about becoming a dad?” Watts asks.
“This and that,” Zeke says.
“It’s the best thing you’ll ever do,” Watts says.
That afternoon, his walking papers still fresh from the printer, Zeke marches down State Street with a tiny group of protesters from the socialist bookstore, hollering for an end to the war. On the lake, the last bits of ice begin to float away from the shore.
Yes, he’s worried about becoming a father.
Oh, and there’s this: Zeke is falling in love with Cougar’s wife.
Zeke doesn’t tell Katie that his appointment has been terminated. There will be time for worrying; his stipend and benefits last through the summer. Besides, it’s a Friday and Cougar’s wife and kid in Fitchburg come over for pizza every Friday night and Zeke always drinks a six-pack of Miller all by himself, which is what his father used to do when he came home from the plant. But it’s only one night a week for Zeke, and sometimes he only drinks three or four or whatever it takes for him to feel distant and apart from everything, just aloof enough to pretend his life is temporarily out-of-service but will be back up and running in no time.
Pelly and Eddie show up at the door. Zeke answers the door and smiles, gives Eddie a high five. Pelly is carrying a small Ziploc bag that contains a banana, a protein shake, and three yellow capsules. Eddie is waving around a new DVD, a cartoon about fish in trouble. Zeke looks at Pelly when she comes in and then points at the Ziploc bag. “Aw, come on, Pelly, it’s pizza night! Let me get you a beer.”
“I’m in training,” Pelly says. “No time for a day off. I’ve got less than four months to be ready.”
Zeke wants to put his face against her chest and drift toward sleep, his hand clasping the back of her neck.
Nobody knows this, of course, and Zeke has no reason to tell anybody. He won’t be acting on this emotion in any way, and assumes it will quietly dissipate when Cougar comes home and Cougar and Pelly resume their practice of making out in front of other people all the time. They are only twenty-four and Cougar has to be gone for large blocks of time. Nobody really minds the making out. In fact, Zeke guesses that everybody is a little bit jealous of their blatant lust. Who wouldn’t want some of that in his life?
Pelly is full of desire; she wants to run the Ironman. The desire alone is enough to make Zeke love her.
They race the Ironman triathlon in Madison every Labor Day weekend. It’s a major event and people who have no business attempting such a grueling race have started to enter. You see them all summer, with expensive running clothes and tricked-out racing bikes, covered in sweat, breathless, panting over hills and down trails. As soon as the ice disappears they don wet suits and swim across the lakes. Late on weekend afternoons, you can hear them in the coffee shops ordering their iced skinny lattes and talking about their training. “Yeah, I’m doing the Ironman,” they’ll say. “Yeah, I’m in training.”
Pelly has the itch, too, and she’s entered herself in the race. You swim two miles, bike for over a hundred, and then run a marathon through the city. If you don’t finish by midnight they make you stop. Flanked by cheering crowds, runners pause all along the race route and throw up and pass out and break down in tears. The tv crews are there. They capture the winners weeping on the steps of the Capitol building. It’s hard to drive anywhere because so many roads are closed.
Everybody is eating pizza but Pelly. Violet starts in on her.
“Aw, come on, Pelly, it’s Friday night, live a little,” she says.
“I can’t,” Pelly says.
“You can’t live a little?” Zeke asks.
“Don’t worry,” Katie says. “I’ll eat her portion. I’m eating for two.”
“What?” Eddie asks. “Me too!”
“No you are not,” Pelly says. “Besides, Katie, that’s a myth. You’re not really supposed to eat for two. You’ll get huge.”
Violet tries to break the ensuing silence with a joke. “Well, it is fun to eat a little more than usual! When I was pregnant with Cougar I had a hot fudge sundae almost every night! He was a big baby, too, thirteen pounds.”
“I’ve never been fat, Pelly. I don’t really struggle with my weight,” Katie says.
“Well, of course not, Katie,” Pelly says. “I doubt you’ve ever had to struggle with anything.”
The thing is, Pelly put on a lot of weight after she had Eddie. Eddie’s almost three, and a year ago, when Cougar left for war, Pelly was probably about forty or fifty pounds heavier than she was when she and Cougar first moved in together. She was worried, Zeke thought, that Cougar would come back and want somebody who looked like Jessica Simpson. So she set out to make herself look like that, cut out all the carbs and sugar and alcohol. She used to drink beer in a rather heroic way, six or seven at a sitting, but no more. She has pale blue eyes, fair skin, thick blond hair, but she’s short, and almost masculine in her movements and demeanor, and she didn’t carry the extra weight well. But in the year that Cougar’s been gone, the weight’s melted off, her cheekbones emerged from her chubby face. She cut her hair short to accentuate them. Her calves and thighs took on shape and tone. She wore skimpier clothes in the summer and her skin was golden brown. She exercises three or four hours a day now: before Eddie wakes up, when he takes his afternoon nap, while he eats dinner and watches tv, and after he goes to sleep. When Violet has a day off, Pelly will bring Eddie to the house and leave him there. Then she will swim at the YMCA or go biking. She eats only nuts and fruits and vegetables and plain chicken breasts. Still, nobody would see her next to Katie and think that Pelly was the prettier one. Pelly is a few steps shy of pretty, a few features too dull to be striking. Katie looks like an actress or a model, even after she cut her hair. Zeke sees that Pelly doesn’t like Katie. And Katie is not much for Pelly. When Katie had her long hair, strangers suspected that she was somebody famous. Her genes are stellar, and Zeke hopes that she’ll pass along all of her best ones to the baby—beauty, brains, body. Zeke has little to leave the kid besides a crappy Datsun and his own inherited melancholy.
It’s not about looks, the way that Zeke has fallen for Pelly. Zeke hasn’t believed in anything in his life, and Katie probably hasn’t either. Zeke and Katie are cynical, well-read to a fault, suspicious of everything heartwarming and hopeful. But Pelly believes. She’ll pray for Cougar and believe Jesus hears it all; she says she can picture Jesus listening. She’ll choke up when Toby Keith comes out with a new song about the USA, she’ll happily have dinner at the food court at West Towne Mall and say it was a nice evening out, she’ll wear a sweatshirt with a teddy bear dressed in a Packers uniform, she’ll buy self-help books and read them with a highlighter in her hand; she put a rest-in-peace sticker for Dale Earnhardt on her car. Zeke thinks that he and Katie judge everything too much, he thinks that they’re suspicious of everything, and there is Pelly, chasing her dreams, happy with whatever comes her way, whether it’s a nice salad at Applebee’s or some art print that Violet bought for her from the sale bin at Bed Bath & Beyond.
Before the Russian novels and the public radio and the lattes, Zeke used to be just like Pelly.
Six weeks after the final protest march of the semester, Zeke cleans out his desk in the cramped shared office, returns his key, and buys a couple of bags of groceries and drives over to Fitchburg to see Pelly. She answers the door covered in sweat. It’s the middle of June now, suddenly warm, and she has no AC in the third-floor apartment. Her face is red and so is the skin on her neck. The tv is on so loud it hurts Zeke’s ears. She’s watching Dr. Phil.
“Hi, Zeke,” she says. “Come on in.”
Cougar and Pelly have a small apartment, and smack in the middle of it, there’s Pelly’s giant treadmill, with an instrument panel that’s blinking red. Next to that is a stand that allows her to train indoors on her new, Visa-purchased racing bike, and next to that’s an exercise mat, a set of hand weights, some resistance bands, and a medicine ball. On the walls, from the Dreams kiosk at the mall, are posters of tranquil nature scenes and big, boastful declarations about success, motivation, winning, and work. Most of this stuff Pelly bought on credit three days after Cougar left for Iraq.
“Still training,” Zeke says while he shuffles things around in the fridge to make room for the groceries he brought.
Pelly is on the treadmill again and she hollers, “Of course. Ironman is less than four months away.”
“I’ve already done fifteen miles today.”
“That’s a lot.”
“I got an e?mail from Cougar. He’ll be home for thirty long days, starting on Labor Day weekend.”
“That’s great news. Does Mom know this?”
“Not yet. She still thinks he only gets a week. I wanted to savor the news myself for a while. Maybe Cougar and I will take a vacation, go up to Door County, see the fall colors.”
Pelly doesn’t always get along with Violet. She thinks Violet is too dramatic and pessimistic. Violet seems to wake up every day expecting to be the victim of tragedy. Violet wants Pelly to send Cougar some pictures, now that Pelly’s body fat is down to thirteen percent or something ridiculous like that. Send him one in your bikini, she’ll say. But Pelly wants to surprise him. When Cougar comes home on Labor Day, she wants to surprise him by having him see her run the Ironman.
Eddie comes out of the apartment’s only bedroom, holding a truck. He beams a smile at Zeke, but he’s not much of a talker, so after a few minutes, he goes back into the bedroom.
“What brings you by?” Pelly says. She’s still breathing hard, and the front of her gray T-shirt is covered in sweat. She pulls it off and is standing in her black sports bra. Shedding their last layer of flab, her abs have emerged, something to behold. Zeke can’t help beholding.
“Wow,” he says.
“I had to go out and charge all new clothes,” Pelly says. “Even new bras. Even my tits got smaller.”
Zeke tries not took look, but he does.
“I brought you some groceries,” Zeke says.
“You can stop doing that Ezekiel, it’s okay.”
Pelly is the only one who calls Zeke by his full name. She does it, he thinks, as a means of subtle flirtation. So he calls her Penelope. Right back at ya, he thinks. Cougar’s given name is Elijah, but everybody calls him Cougar, even Pelly.
“I have plenty of groceries,” Pelly says.
But Zeke knows how broke they are and he starts unloading things into the fridge, then the pantry. When he pulls out a package of Oreos, Pelly says, “You know I don’t like to have that shit in the house.”
“Yes, Penelope, but they’re for me and Eddie. Eddie, come on out and have some cookies and milk.”
“He gets two cookies, max, Ezekiel,” Pelly says. “He hasn’t had supper yet.”
“Okay,” Zeke says, pouring two glasses of milk.
“You want to wait around a minute while I hop in the shower? Have a seat, and then we’ll have dinner.”
“Why do you look so glum?” she says, stopping in the doorway to the bathroom. She undoes her ponytail, lets her hair fall loose on her shoulders. She unties the drawstring off her gray shorts, and they fall a little, revealing her hipbones and a glimpse of panties. She stretches her arms up in the air and then laughs.
“I need to shave,” she says. “Gross. I hate hairy pits.”
“I lost my job,” Zeke says.
“Zeke! Shit, that’s awful.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“You have a baby on the way.”
“I know,” Zeke says.
“Hold on, let me take a shower.” Pelly turns and shuts the bathroom door.
Zeke watches Dr. Phil for a while. It’s about weight loss. Dr. Phil’s voice booms like a man who is hell-bent on determination and self-discipline. He’s got a couple of obese fourteen-year-old girls bawling on the couch.
“I just love Dr. Phil,” Pelly says. “He’s much kinder than Dr. Laura. I don’t listen to her anymore.”
Zeke turns around and sees Pelly wrapped in an ugly brown-and-blue beach towel. She is brushing her hair.
“I have an idea. You should help me train this summer. You can babysit Eddie for me. I’ll pay you.”
“We do have some money, Zeke.”
“No, I’ll do it for free. I have a summer stipend left, anyway. I don’t need to find a job until fall.”
“You’ll help me then?”
“Yup,” Zeke says. He wants to go and kiss her. He wants that towel gone. Admitting this feels like a small victory.
* * * *
The second weekend in June, Zeke sells a few boxes of books for a hundred bucks and buys a bunch of diapers and baby clothes and some fresh-cut tulips for Katie. Katie doesn’t seem to notice. When she’s not sleeping, she’s frantically working away on her thesis. She wants to have a draft finished before the baby is born. She wakes up around nine, eats breakfast, showers, and then goes to the library for the day. Sometimes she doesn’t come home until midnight. When her energy level gets low, she’ll go out for a smoothie or take a nap on the ancient sofa in her office.
Meanwhile, Zeke spends every day with Pelly and Eddie. He watches Eddie so Pelly can train. When she goes on runs, Zeke and Eddie follow her, Zeke pedaling away on Cougar’s bike, Eddie in the yellow toddler seat behind him. He and Eddie both wear red helmets. Pelly charges on ahead of them, and Eddie and Zeke cheer for her.
“Go Pelly! Go Mommy! Go Pelly!”
In the afternoons, Zeke drives Pelly and Eddie to Wingra Park. They eat a light lunch near the boathouse, and then sunbathe in the grass for a while. Pelly has many new bikinis to go with her new body. Zeke and Eddie play on the jungle gym in the shade until Pelly feels rested and has digested her lunch. Then, she will wave to Eddie and Zeke and put her wet suit on over her bikini. Eddie and Zeke will sit on the edge of the dock, dangling their feet in the water, watching Pelly swim out across the lake and back.
Later, they will all go back to the apartment, where Pelly will use her stationary bike, or maybe duck out for a long ride, while Zeke fixes dinner and Eddie watches cartoons. Zeke never eats dinner with them. He feels that perhaps that might be crossing the line. Helping Pelly train for a marathon, that feels noble and generous. Sitting in his brother’s seat at the table, eating off of his brother’s plates, looking down his brother’s wife’s tank top, that’s crossing the line.
Zeke gets home in the early evening. Katie is still off at the library; Violet is usually at work. Zeke’s body is salty with sweat, taut and warm from the sun. He goes upstairs to shower, then makes himself a sandwich and opens his first beer of the evening.
In those moments, he feels better than he has in his entire life.
When they were boys, Cougar was afraid of thunderstorms. Zeke is thinking about that as he lies wide-awake in bed, listening to the sounds of Katie sleeping. She’s become a noisier, restless sleeper: she snores, turns in her sleep, kicks the covers off, awakes in the night, sweating, in need of water. Tonight, the snoring is coupled with a thunderstorm that echoes off of the windows, rattling the panes. Lightning illuminates the perimeter of each window. The flickering keeps him awake, the noise. Katie snores. He loves her, but he is in love with Pelly. There are differences, and he has lived long enough to know that being in love is different than love. He could never love Pelly the way he loves Katie. Katie dominates his world; Pelly rattles it, makes it seem too small and unlucky. Cougar, afraid of thunder, is somewhere in Baghdad, maybe in the middle of sandstorm, maybe with shrapnel slicing open his skin.
Zeke gets up and goes to the basement, where it’s cool. His father’s workshop, with its intricately labeled jars of bolts and screws, pegboards pristine and well-organized, is undisturbed. Zeke is not good with tools. Zeke does very little with his hands, though this is where he likes to go to think, amid the only legacy his father left behind: a perfect workshop, well-lighted, clean, organized. Zeke moves from tool to tool, his fingers caressing the cold metal, the smooth wood.
* * * *
On July Fourth, there is a protest at the Capitol building, and Zeke and Katie are there, as usual. They are shouting for peace, for an end to the war. In one corner of the Capitol steps, there is a small group of counterprotesters waving American flags. There are reporters and tv cameras.
That evening, Pelly sees Katie and Zeke on the five o’clock news—a shot of them waving their fists and calling for an end to the war. Pelly phones the house, hysterical; she calls them traitors. She and Eddie are supposed to come over later, to watch the fireworks from the roof of the garage. But they won’t be coming. She won’t have her son around traitors on the Fourth of July. Eddie’s father is laying it all on the line for his country. How dare they treat him with such disrespect?
Katie is almost laughing as she relays all of this to Zeke.
“Ugh,” she says, “It’s so sad. Everybody is so goddamn ignorant.”
“She has a lot to lose,” Zeke says.
“I know. Exactly my point.”
Later, when Katie has gone to the bedroom for a nap, Zeke telephones Pelly.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Let me make it up to you.”
She hangs up on him.
The fireworks are canceled because of rain. Strong storms blow in after dark. Everybody is disappointed about the fireworks. At home, Katie, Violet, and Zeke go to bed early. Nobody feels like talking. They all lie still in the dark, listening to the frantic wind chimes from the neighbor’s deck, listening to the thunder, to the wheels from passing buses and cars, and the rush, the mad driving of rain. Zeke remembers Cougar hiding in a closet. “The booms!” he cried. “Make the booms go away!”
In a week, Katie and Zeke will go to Ann Arbor to visit Katie’s parents. Her father is turning fifty, and there will be a large party. Zeke wants to know what he should pack. “What should I wear to this party?” he says.
“It’s a backyard barbecue,” Katie says. “Wear whatever you want.”
“What are you wearing?”
“What I can fit into,” she says. “One of my maternity sundresses.”
“Oh,” Zeke says. “So, it’s a dressy affair.”
“No, not at all.”
“Well. You’re wearing a dress.”
“A sundress. Besides, it’s all I can wear. I’m becoming a cow.”
“No you’re not,” Zeke says. “Should I wear shorts?”
“Men look so dumb in shorts. Women are lucky. Women can wear dresses in the summer. Men always look dumb or hot.”
Zeke has only met Katie’s parents five times. Zeke and Katie did not have a long courtship. Katie got pregnant despite being on the pill. Katie’s parents are classy, they never act disappointed. Everything is “exceptional” or “marvelous” or “grand.”
The day of the party is sweltering, ninety degrees, humid. Zeke finds a chair under the trees and starts drinking beer. The beer is in a keg from the local microbrewery. It is a dark and inappropriate beer for such a hot afternoon.
Katie’s father, Roberto Gomez, is an anthropologist. Her mother, Sally Olson, hosts a nationally syndicated public radio show based in Ann Arbor. This makes conversations difficult for Zeke. It feels like Rob is doing fieldwork, interviewing a subject of a study—the working-class Wisconsinite with academic leanings. It feels like Sally is interviewing him for thousands of radio listeners—What made you want to study literature? What role did your father’s sudden death play in your decision not to finish your degree?
But at this party nobody is talking to Zeke. He wants it this way. He wonders what it would be like to grow up the way Katie has grown up—
surrounded by sophisticated conversation, books, parents with ideals and liberal politics.
Katie’s father makes an effort. He comes over to start a conversation. It’s the usual backyard party banter that summer. Rumsfeld’s a prick, Bush is a twit, the whole country is headed for the shitter and nobody cares.
But for the most part, Zeke sits alone. On his fifth beer, he grows sullen and heartsick.
Katie finds him in the vast leafy crowded yard and says, “What’s the matter with you?”
“I’m thinking about Cougar. I wish Pelly wasn’t so mad at us.”
“Oh, God,” Katie says.
“What? He’s my brother! I worry!”
“I told Cougar I’d look after her,” he says.
“Well, you did your best.”
“It just makes me sad,” Zeke says.
“Jesus Christ. You’re acting like you’ve just broken up with somebody.”
Zeke shrugs. “Do you think this beer is bitter?”
When they are back in Wisconsin, and Katie is sequestered in the library, Zeke spends his days driving around Fitchburg and the south side of Madison, hoping for a glimpse of Pelly. He knows the trails she likes to run, knows her bicycle routes. Some days he sees her for a moment, before she veers into the woods or crosses the overpass. He also knows which mornings Violet is the apartment watching Eddie, and this makes it easier for him to follow her. On Tuesdays and Fridays, when Violet is off of work, he knows that Pelly will be running and biking in the Arboretum.
It’s a Friday, and Zeke is sitting on the bench near the trail. Pelly sees him and stops. She is breathing hard. Her skin is dark from the sun. Her hair is almost white. She’s even skinnier, her muscles even more prominent.
“I hope you’re happy, you bastard,” she says.
Zeke tilts his head at her like a lost dog and takes a few steps toward her. She crumbles against his chest, moistening the front of his T-shirt with sweat, almost knocking him off of his feet. He wraps his arms around her.
“What, what is it?” he says.
“Cougar’s not coming home until Thanksgiving,” Pelly says.
“Oh,” Zeke says. “When did you hear that?”
Pelly pushes against Zeke’s chest, sending him back a few feet, then sprints down the trail, kicking up dirt and leaves behind her.
Zeke ignores the jubilant butterflies taking flight in his heart and gut.
On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Pelly decides that she will stay in the Ironman race. Violet and Katie will bring digital cameras, and they will e?mail pictures to Cougar. They will send him the race results from the newspaper and show him Pelly’s name among the contestants. Everyone is certain that she will finish, and Eddie is beside himself with excitement. The night before the race, he sleeps at Violet’s so Pelly can be sure to rest. Zeke stays up late with him and they watch tv and eat popcorn. Eddie says he is excited that he will have a father who is in the Marines and a mother who is an Ironwoman. He tells Zeke that he will have the toughest parents in school. Zeke can’t argue with that.
The next morning, Violet gets up early and drives Pelly to the race site. She’ll help Pelly into her wet suit, and she wants to say a few prayers with Pelly before the race begins. Zeke and Katie fix Eddie’s breakfast and get him washed and dressed, and they meet Violet downtown at seven a.m. In the lake, you can see the arms and legs of the swimmers moving and cutting through the blue water, kicking up splashes of white foam. Zeke thinks of an army about to invade the city from the shore.
Zeke, Katie, Eddie, and Violet are standing on the giant ramp at the convention center when the first swimmers run up the ramp, stripping off their wet suits as they run to the bikes. Pelly isn’t one of the leaders, of course, but Zeke is surprised when he sees Pelly in the middle of the pack. She’s doing what she needs to do to finish by midnight. There’s Pelly, coming out of the green lake and into the sun!
Zeke has seen her first. “There she is! There’s our girl!” Eddie bounces up and down, delirious. Katie and Violet snap picture after picture, shouting encouragement. Pelly runs barefoot up the concrete ramp, on her way to the changing area where she will get her bike and her helmet. Her hair is swept back with the water. The skin on her thighs burns with redness, and so do her cheeks, as though her face and legs have been slapped. Her deltoids pump, her calves pulse. Her stomach ripples before Zeke. Millions of water drops fly from her skin and hair. She is in the best shape of her life. Pelly sees her family and smiles and stops just long enough to touch Zeke’s hand, then Eddie’s face. Zeke yells and yells. Go Pelly! Go! You can do it! He is a maniac. He tries to get a high five from her and misses. The other spectators clear a space for him. Zeke jumps up and down, sprinting in his flip-flops and khakis. Zeke yells and runs alongside the route until he can’t see her anymore, until she is away on her bike and headed south to the county highway, where she’ll wind through those goddamn green hills, insane with determination and adrenaline.
Once Zeke loses sight of her, he quits screaming and pumping his fists and he finds Katie and Violet and Eddie in the crowd again. Both women watch him with open mouths. He’s sweating. He’s breathing hard. His eyesight dims while a stitch of pain throbs in his side.
“What was that?” Katie says.
But Zeke can’t answer. He can’t speak. His heart is still pounding.