The young man had just missed his previously-ticketed flight from LAX, but the ticket agent, a middle-aged woman with hair dyed a brilliant auburn color, managed to get him booked on the very next flight to Charlotte. The ticket agent wore a good bit of gold jewelry and had land eyes ringed this late in the day with mascara-clotted lashes; streaks of her lipstick, a shade darker than that of her hair, stuck to the edges of her square front teeth. She was quite obviously shocked at the way he wept and sniveled, making a quiet spectacle of himself, really, like a lovesick girl, or actually more like a bereaved woman.
The other passengers waiting in the queue had carefully averted their eyes from him and when the young man came at last to the counter and started telling his fractured story the ticket agent at the adjacent window closed his station and moved to one further away. The ticket agent with the auburn hair asked him for a form of identification.
“Okay, then,” she said, handing his driver’s license back to him. “Let’s see if we can’t get you to Charlotte this evening.” She gave him some tissues and patted his hand. When she had seen him waiting in line, crying that way, she, like all the other ticket agents, had hoped someone else would have to wait on him; but then later, toward the very end of their transaction when with a grateful hiccoughing sigh he lowered his forehead down upon his arms which were folded atop the counter, she reached across and stroked his hair, just barely touching for a moment the swirl of thick, greasy waves at the crown. The scent and the moisture from his hair would cling to her fingertips for the rest of the day. She didn’t charge him a single cent for the new booking.
“And see,” she said, “this way you won’t have to spend two hours in Dallas. You’ll only be an hour later than you would’ve been on the other flight. And you’ve got a better seat. Good luck. Your grandfather’s gonna be so happy to see you. I’m sure everything’s gonna work out just fine.”
The young man spent the next 45 minutes outside smoking among the jostling crowds of passengers and busy airport personnel. He leaned against a concrete pillar and ran his hands through his hair and took his sunglasses off and tore at his blistered eyes with the woolly sleeves of his jacket. He cried some more and wiped his nose on his jacket sleeves and the backs of his hands. He smoked one Marlboro cigarette right after another until there were only two left in the pack, and it was time to go inside the terminal and find his gate. Although it was cool outside his brow was slick with perspiration; a lock of hair fell forward and stuck to his forehead. His hair clung in dank waves to the back of his head and hung in somewhat wilted-looking curls just above his collar.
By the time he was due to board the plane the young man had managed finally to compose himself to a passable degree and stop crying, although as he and the other passengers made their shuffling way through the cabin to their seats, he continued to sniffle and his eyes looked boiled and his face had that telltale pink scalded look, like a child who’s been stood in a corner to cry it all out. While the last straggling passengers were still settling in, one of the flight attendants brought him a small box of tissues. He hadn’t called for the flight attendant. She made some unintelligible, vaguely comforting sound like a coo or a murmur when she gave him the box of tissues.
“Could you maybe bring me a blanket and a pillow?” he asked the flight attendant.
“I might be able to find a blanket. The pillows might be all gone.”
She returned with a blanket and a pillow. She rested her hand on his shoulder for a moment just before she walked away.
The woman sitting in the window seat beside him read a magazine while the crew prepared for departure. The woman wore a sleek black pantsuit with broad padded shoulders. Several jade bracelets on each of her wrists clicked against each other when she turned a page. The woman cast furtive, suspicious looks in his direction. He could tell she didn’t care one bit for the looks of him. The way she looked at him seemed to tell what she liked: young men such as himself should be smiling, hearty, and hale, with chlorine-bleached hair, and maybe the scent of chlorine perpetually clinging even after a shower wouldn’t be too much for her. And the eyes—oh, yes, eyes like his should be clear and smiling, always. Crying eyes to her meant nothing but trouble, or maybe even worse. High-strung girls were bad enough; a high-strung boy was just worthless. He suspected she was a mother who had a son his age, and that she was comparing her progeny favorably against the impression he was now making.
After a while he forgot about her and her clinking jade bracelets. But when the plane taxied toward the runway for take-off, the young man leaned near her to get a better look out of the window—he wondered if he could see snow on top of Mount Wilson—and the woman stiffened and drew herself further into the corner.
He was suddenly conscious that he carried a strong smell of cigarettes; and his breath was probably bad, too. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, withdrawing into his own space. The woman looked out the window and didn’t reply.
The young man dozed for a bit after take-off. While he slept, the woman sitting by the window observed his face in repose. After a while it seemed as though the woman might be taking an inventory of his features or perhaps was examining his face with some kind of recognition or expectation of recognition. She searched his features for a long time; she watched as his jaw relaxed, his chin dropped, and his lips parted. He had a small, thin white scar in his lower lip near the corner of his mouth. It was practically unnoticeable.
A pair of flight attendants wheeled a cart of dinner trays up the aisle and the same flight attendant who had brought him the tissues awakened him with a little pat on the knee. He stirred and turned his head and looked up at the flight attendant with a faint, sleepy smile. The flight attendant returned the smile and stooped toward him. She reached beneath his knee with one hand and lifted his leg out of her way and with her other hand she made a sort of waving gesture—as one might say “Scoot!” to a little boy—for him to keep his sprawling legs out of the aisle.
Soon the meal cart made its way back down the aisle and when the young man was served he roused and pulled himself up from his slouching position. The woman sitting at the window noticed that he drank all of his Coca-Cola and ate all of the dessert—some kind of glazed cake—but that of all the rest of the food he ate only the sliced turkey, which he peeled from the sandwich roll.
The plane flew on toward darkness. He squirmed fitfully with the tiny pillow and twisted his body this way and that beneath the flimsy blanket, trying, it seemed—apparently without success—to arrange the covering in such a way that it might actually give him some comfort. Finally he drew the blanket over his head and wedged himself into a position in which he was able to rest for a while.
The woman seated at the window finished reading her magazine and stuffed it into the seat-back pocket in front of her. For a long time she sat and stared out the window into the darkness as though she were trying to figure out what the lights and the vague shapes on the ground so far below meant. Finally she thrust herself back in her seat with a sigh and sat for a moment with her fingers locked across her abdomen. Then she reached beneath the seat and retrieved a crinkly bag of candies from the satchel she had stowed there. While she was digging another Brach’s caramel, Maple Nut Goodie from the noisy bag, the young man suddenly sat up and threw the blanket off.
“O Jesus, am I hot!” he said, looking directly at the woman. She heard traces of a husky Southern accent in his voice.
“Indeed, it is warm, isn’t it?” she replied.
He reached up and twisted the little cylindrical air vents, checking if they could be opened any further. “I’m schvitzing like a pig,” he said. “I’ve been schvitzing like a pig all day.” He eyed the bag of candy.
“Would you like some candy?”
“Oh . . . are you sure?”
She held the bag out to him. “Please.” He hesitated for a moment. “Really, go ahead. If you don’t help, I’ll eat them all. And that wouldn’t be good.”
“Oh, wow. Yumm.” The young man took one of the candies from the bag and put it in his mouth and began to chew. He chewed deliberately and then he started to giggle. “I’m sorry,” he said. He held a hand in front of his mouth and chortled through his nose as he chewed. Turning to her, he seemed to go through a physical preamble to speech but then he held up a hand and turned away and chewed some more.
At last he swallowed and spoke. “I had forgotten how chewy they are!” He threw his head back and laughed. When he laughed his face split open and an altogether different, much older man’s face could be glimpsed. “Oh, my god,” he said. “It’s been a real long time since I had a Nut Goodie. I forgot.” He laughed a little more and shook his head ruefully.
“Would you like another?”
“By all means. Take two!”
“Well, then, I will.”
They both sat and ate a candy. Then the woman cleared her throat and spoke. “Not too many people know about Nut Goodies. They must have been a favorite of yours at some time.”
“Sort of.” He looked directly at her and she could see that the bloodshot eyes had cleared and that they were blue, a deep, unreal-looking blue like the markings of a felt-tip pen. “Yeah, I guess so. My Aunt Gayle loved them and she used to give them to her Shih Tzu.”
The woman gasped and choked on her laughter. “She gave them to her Shih Tzu?”
The young man laughed with her and leaned a little closer. “I know, it sounds weird. She probably killed poor Prissy with all those Nut Goodies.”
The woman raised her eyebrows very high and placed a hand on her breastbone and asked incredulously, “Prissy?”
“Yep, that’s right—Prissy,” he said with a nod. “The dog’s name was Prissy. Every night after supper my aunt would sit down with Prissy and that little bag of Nut Goodies. She’d take a bite of a Nut Goodie and then give the rest of it to the dog. And she wouldn’t give me any, ever. And I loved’ em! I thought they were delicious!” He spoke with his hands and the rest of his body seemed to be engaged with his gestures. The rest of his body seemed to tense up when he made certain gestures and relax when he made others.
“So naturally you developed a passion for them?”
“Oh, yes. And I started sneaking ‘em! Of course she figured it out and then she made an awful fuss and started hiding them. She acted like I was a criminal. Told me I was going to Hell for stealing her candy.”
The woman said, “Oh, my. That is certainly quite a story.”
“It is, isn’t it? My Aunt Gayle was a nut. I mean, a good nut, but definitely touched. I think it must’ve been because she was an old maid.”
The woman suddenly bent down and stuffed the bag of candy back into the satchel beneath her seat and then turned to look out the window. The young man ate his one remaining candy and then pushed the flight attendant call button.
The same flight attendant who had brought him the tissues and lifted his leg out of the way of the meal cart came to his seat. She propped herself on his armrest with one hand and draped her other arm across the back of his seat.
“Um, I was wondering . . .” he began, and then he seemed to sort of trail off in search of an apology. He sat there for a moment with his mouth slightly open.
The flight attendant’s knees and ankles and hips creaked as she lowered herself to squat upon her haunches in the aisle beside him. She clung to his armrest for balance. “Yes?” she asked, looking up at him.
“Well, see . . . I just ate some candy and I was wondering if I could have another Coke?”
The flight attendant laughed and raised herself with a heave against his armrest. “Is that all? Of course you can! You sure you don’t need anything else?”
After he drank his Coke and ate all the ice in the cup and then called the flight attendant to retrieve the empty can and the empty cup and the damp cocktail napkin, he spoke to the woman who sat looking into the dark space outside the window. “Are you from Charlotte?” he asked. She turned to him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Are you from Charlotte?”
“Not originally.” She returned her gaze to the window.
“But you live there now? In Charlotte?”
She turned toward him again. She turned her whole body toward him and then paused, folding her hands over one knee. She pressed her lips together for a long moment and then she spoke, the words rushing out in a forced, bored monotone that sounded to him rehearsed, quite possibly angry, and certainly impatient. The young man wondered for a moment what he had possibly said or done to offend her. “Yes, I live in Charlotte now,” she said. “I’ve lived there for 20 years. I’ve been visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Los Angeles. I live alone in Charlotte. I’m a schoolteacher.”
The young man almost jumped out of his seat. “You’re a teacher?” he asked. “Oh, my god! So am I! I’m a teacher, too! What do you teach?”
She taught English at a private school in Charlotte; she was the chair of the department. “And I suppose you live and teach in Los Angeles?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m in Teach for America. I teach at Fairfax High. It’s a pit.”
Really? And was he from Charlotte? Had he attended high school in Charlotte?
“Sort of. I went to Country Day when I lived there with my mom. But I graduated from a public school in northern Virginia. I went to live with my dad near D.C. when I was 16.”
And did he like teaching? Did he think he would make a career of it? “Oh, god, no. I hate it.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. It’s certainly not so easy as most people think.”
“Yeah, and I think if I’d had a more positive initiation into it . . . I mean, most of these kids I’m teaching can barely read in Spanish, much less English. But it doesn’t matter. I’m almost done with it.”
The woman said again, “Oh, that’s too bad. That’s just too bad.”
The woman and the young man both sat solemnly shaking their heads for a while, enveloped in the semi-darkness and the quiet rumbling background noise of the airplane cabin, until the woman spoke again.
“So what do you think you might do when you’re done with Teach for America? Any plans?”
“Well, yes, actually.” The young man looked a little bit embarrassed. “I’m going to try acting.”
“Well, you know, L. A. ‘s the place. And my girlfriend is an actress.”
“Indeed. Anyone famous?”
“Not yet. She was on a soap opera for a while but she got a new agent who told her to quit when her contract came up. So now she’s doing auditions. Actually, she had an audition today and that’s why I missed my original flight and ended up on this one. Oh, god! Man, I got so totally stressed out!”
The woman was listening. She had leaned closer to him and had crossed her arms so that she was cradling her elbows. The lapels and collar of her black pantsuit jacket bunched up beneath her chin and ears, hiding the scrawny tendons of her neck and the splotchy skin across her collarbone. Her shoulder pads stuck out like wings.
“See, Lisa—my girlfriend—was supposed to take me to the airport. So she never shows up and I’m paging her like crazy and then finally just when the cab shows up and starts honking and I’m on my way out the door she calls to tell me the audition took longer than she thought it would and that she’s still over in Culver City. Anyway, long story short, I took the cab and still missed my flight and with all the stress and stuff I just totally freaked out. Thank god the ticket agent understood and was able to get me on this plane or I don’t know what I would have done.”
“Well,” said the woman, “if you don’t mind my asking, why is it that you’re flying all the way to Charlotte on a school night? Are you on Fall Break? I have been, for the last week.”
The young man’s eyes had already grown damp and glistening. He sucked in his lower lip and inhaled deeply through his nose. “My grandfather’s dying. Prostate cancer. My grandmother says it’s the end and that I should come now. I think they’ve got him on something like a morphine drip.” He sniffed and with the back of his hand rubbed away the drop of moisture that collected suddenly at the tip of his nose. He spoke again, more softly now, so softly that the woman could barely hear him, “I’ve got to see him. I’ve just got to see him. He and my grandmother are the only ones in my family who ever even tried to understand me.”
“Oh, dear,” said the woman. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be. It’s not your fault. He had a great life. I just hate to hear about how he’s suffered the last couple of months. Especially when I think about all the fun I’ve been having. I just feel so . . . guilty.”
“You shouldn’t feel guilty. Guilt is not a healthy feeling, and I’m sure there’s very little you could do for him that hasn’t been done.”
“Yeah, I know. But I feel like a little shit anyway. I’m the baby of the family and he and my grandmother spoiled me. I’m actually his namesake. We were so close. Always, even while I was in college. Until I moved out West. That’s not been even two years, I just wish I’d been here to comfort him.”
Silence fell between the young man and the woman. Passengers and flight attendants moved about the cabin, occasionally opening and shutting overhead bins, begging pardon of one another as they squeezed past each other’s laps and knees and bumped into one another and passed each other in the aisles, sometimes chatting as they waited in line for the lavatories. The young man reached up and clicked off his reading light. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes and tried to rest patiently.
He closed his eyes and tried to think cool, calm thoughts. He tried to visualize a calming image. He searched his mind for the right thing, something lush and green and cool, a paradise of sorts, and soon his thoughts turned to his grandparents’ house. It was a long, low, one-storied affair set way back off the busy road but still quite visible; a smallish house for the neighborhood, it looked even smaller than it really was because it was set on a large lot—five acres—and it was dwarfed by the grove of pecan and walnut trees that had been planted around the property while the original house was being built. It was originally a white-frame house built on a red-brick foundation, a Craftsman bungalow, but the bricks and the vertically-grooved asbestos siding that had for many years now covered the original frame siding had been painted over the same color, a dove-grey. The windows and doors were trimmed in blinding white, of course. Over the years many additions, extensions, enclosures, and windows had been sewn onto the original L-shaped house, and up-close the house did seem a bit rambling, but his grandfather, a general contractor, the son of a carpenter, either had done the work himself or had closely supervised the work, and so none of it was at all shoddy, nor did any part of the house seem piecemeal or an afterthought. All of the windows matched and all of the joints were sturdy, nearly seamless. Someone seeing the house for the first time wouldn’t have known that it hadn’t been designed and originally built exactly as it stood.
The house was set atop a light grade and in the back, beneath the kitchen, a cellar had been dug and finished with poured cement. In that cellar, the sole entry to which was an exterior door beneath the kitchen porch, there was a shower where for many years, before the eventual addition of two more bathrooms upstairs, the young man’s grandfather and uncles had gone to bathe; the one bathroom upstairs in those days had been for the most part the private domain of the young man’s grandmother and daughters, one of whom was the young man’s mother. The grandfather had shaved at a big sink in what once had been a pantry but was now a very modern laundry room. At least one of the uncles had left home for good before the other bathrooms were added, and all of the brothers remembered the early years when there had been only cold water running to the shower in the cellar.
The young man had never had to take a cold shower in that cellar, but he imagined he could feel the stinging jets of cold water on his shoulders, the thrill of the water running down his limbs. He could hear the water splashing at his feet, the trickle and gurgle of the water in the drain. He could smell the cold, oily red clay beneath the house.
He couldn’t wait for this night to be done. He wanted so badly to get off the plane and find his way directly to that house with its familiar smells and sounds and lie down in one of those beds between cool sheets and get some real rest.
The plane descended onto the runway at Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport. As the plane taxied to the terminal, the captain announced from the cockpit his static-filled greetings and local weather update. Soon the cabin lights were turned on, and a flight attendant made a separate announcement admonishing passengers to remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened.
The woman tugged the young man’s sleeve and spoke in a hushed tone that he could barely hear against the background squawk of the flight attendant announcing connecting flights. “Listen,” she said, “good luck with the acting. You know, when I first saw you I thought I had seen you before on TV or in the movies.”
“No way!” He smiled broadly, so genuinely flattered that the woman could imagine him saying next, “Aw, shucks.”
“Oh, yes. So surely that’s a good sign—I mean, if people are already taking you for a movie star. Right?”
“Oh, you’re sweet. Thank you. I really appreciate that.”
“I mean it. And good luck with your family. I’m sure your grandfather’s going to be so happy to see you.”
The young man was the first passenger out of his seat when the plane came to a stop. Before the seat belt light was turned off several other people scrambled for the overhead bins and before long the aisle was filled with passengers waiting to disembark. The young man bounced up and down on his toes impatiently and his face grew flushed. His lips moved as though he might be talking to himself and before long he grew a faint moustache of perspiration. When he finally got off the plane, the young man practically sprinted down the concourse.
At the baggage claim the woman in the black pantsuit tottered toward him on a pair of wickedly fashionable spiked heels. Her carry-on satchel was slung over her shoulder, and she was pulling a suitcase on rollers. In her outstretched hand, palm upturned, she held the clear plastic bag of candy. “Won’t you take the rest of these candies?” she asked. Perhaps because of this gesture, like that of a little girl offering a gift to an older boy, the woman seemed oddly girlish and diminutive in spite of the stylish severity of her outfit and the extreme height and style of her shoes, the filigreed toes of which came to a sharp point.
“Oh, thanks, but I’d better not have any more,” he said. “I’m actually wearing a temporary crown. I’d hate to pull it off and then have to find a dentist here to glue it back on.”
She had passed on by him. The little girl was gone. The woman looked back at him over her shoulder and smiled and sang out, “Getting old is hell, isn’t it?”
The young man smiled hesitantly, a cautious smile. He wasn’t sure he had heard her correctly. And if he had, then he hadn’t understood what she meant by that. He cocked his head and said, “Huh?” but the woman was too far away and hadn’t heard him. And then she was gone, and he was still waiting for his bag.
When he finally pulled his rental car, a shiny, bright red sedan (such a bright red that it seemed somehow obscene) which reeked of stale cigarette smoke and the smell of workout shoes, into the entryway of the parking garage at Presbyterian Hospital, he side-swiped the absurdly high curb with the front bumper and both wheels on the passenger’s side. He parked the car and ran away from it without thinking to examine it for possible damage. He ran through the garage and out onto the brick-paved and cement walkways and then he turned and ran straight across the wet grass to the main door.
He jogged toward the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist looked up and watched him coming toward her. She had sandy-colored hair, grey at the roots, and she sat and waited without smiling as he approached her. For a moment he stood in front of her, panting and unable to speak. He ran his hands through his hair, pushing it back from his damp forehead. He could feel trickles of perspiration running down his side and his back, and he could feel the seat of his trousers and his underpants sticking to his bottom.
In the quiet elevator he caught his breath and went about smoothing his appearance. He tucked his shirt into his pants all the way around and hitched his belt, checked his reflection in the dull brass walls of the elevator to make sure that the collars of his shirt and jacket weren’t askew, rubbed the tip of his nose and picked out the corners of his eyes, and held a hand in front of his mouth to check his breath.
Walking down the corridor, trying to make sense of the room numbering scheme, he became aware of the click and echo of his heels against the floor. He walked all the way down the hall and back. Near the end of the hall, he stopped and said out loud, “Fuck. Where the fuck is his fucking room?”
There was a fluttering movement right behind him, and the rattling of a woman’s jewelry—gold bangles—and the sound of someone’s mouth opening as though they were about to speak. He turned to face his mother, who was peering out through the door which she held slightly ajar. Her glasses hung forward from a long gold chain around her neck. The lines in her face had become more deeply etched since the last time he had seen her and her eyelids were swollen to the point that they appeared lashless. Her eyes seemed so tiny beneath the swollen lids that it was impossible to see any color in them at all.
“Brian,” she said. “It is you. I thought I heard somebody walking by. Then I heard that awful cussing and I knew it had to be you. Come here.” She stepped out of the doorway, letting the door draw shut behind her, and held her arms wide. He stepped into her embrace. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest for a moment. Then she drew away just a half-step and turned her face up to his.
“I hate to tell you this, but you just missed him. Daddy died about . . .” she looked at her watch, “Daddy died about seven minutes ago.”
His mother led him into the room. They stepped into the room and stood by the door for a moment. There were several of his aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around his grandmother, who was sitting in a chair by the bed where his grandfather’s body lay; she hadn’t seen him enter the room. He heard a soft voice say, “There’s Brian,” and then another one, not so soft, said, “Late as usual.”
A nurse entered the room a few seconds after Brian and his mother, before the door had completely closed. The nurse stood against the wall by the door, watching, her arms crossed over her chest. After Brian hugged and kissed his grandmother, he turned to his grandfather’s wasted body and lowered his face to his grandfather’s nearly unrecognizable face, placing his lips upon his grandfather’s forehead. He had just barely touched his grandfather’s skin when he stood up and turned around with a puzzled look on his face.
“My God!” he said. “He’s burning up! Are you sure he’s dead?” He placed his hands on his grandfather’s chest, touched his arms, and held the back of his hand against his grandfather’s cheek. “He is burning up!” Everyone in the room looked at him with the same solemn expression, although his grandmother’s bright eyes didn’t reflect the same type or degree of reserve as the rest.
The nurse stepped forward, touched his elbow, and spoke quietly to him. “It’s the cancer. It’s not dead yet, and there’s so little of him left. That’s what’s creating the heat you’re feeling. It’s normal in a case like this.”
Brian looked at the nurse and held her gaze for an enduring moment, then nodded. He held one of his grandfather’s very warm but lifeless hands in his and then turned to the nest of the family with merriment spreading across his face like a blush.
“Maybe he’s hot because of the place he’s gone to!” he said. The family looked at him, stunned, all of them, into absolute silence.
But then his grandmother laughed. “Come here!” she said to her grandson, reaching out to him. He knelt in front of the chair in which she sat and they held each other for a long time while the others shuffled about, lowing and coughing nervously.
Later that night, at his grandmother’s house, Brian picked up a pair of flannel pajama trousers that hung across the back of a ladder-backed chair in his grandfather’s bathroom. I worshiped the trousers that clung to him! he said to himself, holding the pajama bottoms in both hands. He was so glad to be away from all the rest of them, relieved to be away from all of that grief-stricken non-bickering, no one saving what they thought but thinking it anyway, their thoughts roiling, practically audible, just beneath the carefully polite things they said. He rubbed the pajamas against his cheek, the linty, fleecy fabric catching on his stubble.
He looked around the bathroom, which was tiled in a wild pattern of black and green—as a child he had tried once to count the number of black tiles and the number of green tiles—and touched with his fingertips each of the things on the shelf beneath the window, the neat row of shaving and grooming things, the razors and the bottles of Vitalis and 4711 cologne and the can of Barbasol. He then rummaged the closet shelves, looking for some matches or a lighter among all the junk, and his search was rewarded when he found an old pack of matches from Gus’s Original 49er Restaurant. The first match sputtered and fell apart, but the second one struck and he was able to light his cigarette. He quickly smoked the cigarette, blowing the smoke out through the bathroom window, which he had raised, and then he dropped the butt into the toilet, where the ember spat when it met the water and was extinguished. He lowered the window.
In his own apartment overlooking a canyon in Hollywood, he often did the same thing, sneaking into the bathroom late at night to smoke. When he inhaled the smoke, it was as though he were breathing in drafts of his own contentment; he loved his life there, even if it did kill him to get up so early every morning to go teach. He would stand in his underwear or naked in front of the long window, leaning against the casement jamb, and blow the smoke out carefully and deliberately through the screen. Lisa smoked sometimes, too, especially if they were out having a drink, but she insisted on a no-smoking policy in the house, and the neighbors were rather fussy types, all of them having asked him at one time or another, with evident disapprobation, if he smoked. It wouldn’t do to alienate the neighbors. His apartment was one of three that had been partitioned out of a glamorous old house built in the 1930’s way up Beachwood Drive. Now he would never get to show his grandfather the apartment. Nor would his grandfather ever get to meet Lisa. He had talked to his grandparents about coming to visit, and it wasn’t just lip service, either, because he had thought of them when he had taken the apartment, and he had realized that his grandparents would be as impressed by the style of the place as he was, especially his grandfather who so dearly loved well-made buildings.
But then he actually blushed when he thought about how the apartment had looked when he left for the airport: large clumps of dust and dog hair and cat hair accumulated in the corners and running along the baseboards, grape-colored smears on the wood floors from whatever that hateful berry was that fell from the tree by the side door, a pair of Lisa’s panties hanging from the latch of the window above the bed, the whole place strewn with dirty clothes and books and magazines and scripts. Oh, well. Now the gleaming wood floors and the old plaster-work and the casement windows that he knew his grandfather would have admired would continue to exist without ever having known the old fellow’s admiration. He picked up the flannel pajama bottoms again, and he said aloud, “I worshiped the trousers that clung to him.” Then he held the pajamas to his face, buried his face in the soft fabric, and breathed in the smell.