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Table of Contents

Chapter Nine

Dodge was the kind of person, Sage had explained, who would go out of his way to find a store where the employees were on strike just so he could cross the picket line.

Her observations, my translation:

In fact when she saw him for the first time she was in a loose queue of picketers, disgruntled Kroger’s Food Store employees under union directive to protest a reduction in health benefits. They held hand-lettered placards crucified on slats and slung over shoulders somber as Calvary, their eyes’ flint endowed with purity of purpose as they stared potential patrons into shamed complicity. Kroger’s, where Sage worked 3 nights a week, stood in the congested grid of a corner mall a few blocks to the west of campus, edging a lake-scented neighborhood studded with masts of Dutch elms raising sails of leaf in summer. Two-story Victorian houses, each one subdivided by profit motive to yield twice as many rooms as was reasonable or just, were rented to students lucky or affluent enough to escape the homogenized claustrophobia of dorm life. The evening that Sage met Dodge, tiny talismans of winter hung in the air, the season’s inaugural snowfall, the effect beneath the parking lot’s glazing sodium lamps one of enchantment, making her happy where she always felt happiness first, curled up deep in the warm bungalow of the solar plexus, even as her voice rose hot in spark and ash from the bungalow’s fireplace to join the incendiary chants of other picketers.

An anemically pale young man who seemed taller than he was by virtue of a gangling stride approached, the pockets of a tan Eddie Bauer jacket chopping off hands with guillotine cuffs. From the waist up he looked almost too tidy to be a student, like a businessman who’d quick-changed in the telephone booth of his day off from the corporation to emerge on the street poorly disguised as Overly Neat Collegiate Man.

As though his forehead were a back, the moussed hair extended in a wind-stiffened cape. The tidiness reached his waist, lost confidence when it saw the riot of wrinkles in the huge pair of shorts he was wearing, fled back up to safety in the torso. A light wind whipped, making the wrinkles move as though applauding in victory. The lower lip was not yet pierced. He stood for a moment regarding the picketers before sweeping through them, a scythe through dandelion puffs.

When he emerged from the store, Sage couldn’t resist the opportunity to enlighten the strikebreaker with a comment that would heighten his awareness of the struggle the workers were engaged in. “Thanks for observing the strike. Asshole.”

His lips unlatched a tight Jack-in-the-box smile that popped out as he as passed. “Herd mentality’s a dangerous thing.”

“Speaking of herds? Nice haircut,” she observed. “The shape is not altogether unlike that of a distressed udder.”

The remark was vintage Sage, unsparing, deadly as seven severed jugulars. He apparently had a sense of humor and grabbed his neck, wiped imaginary blood down the front of the jacket, stared in consternation at the non-existent smear. “I’ll send you my cleaning bill,” he said, striding away.

“Do yourself a favor and leave the jacket at the cleaners,” she called after him.

The next time she saw him was in a class she was taking called “Literature of the Occult,” an air-filled elective she dribbled lazily down academia’s court to set up an easy slam dunk of graduation next spring. Before sitting down in the room’s only unoccupied chair next to Dodge, she recognized the jacket, the hair, the colossal pair of Glad garbage-bag-limp shorts.

After class Dodge confessed, “You were pretty brutal a couple weeks ago in the parking lot.

“Sorry,” she replied. “I thought about it after. I shouldn’t have said what I said. It was a little over the top.”

“Intelligent people are frequently over the top. They can’t help it. They see the bullshit and for better or worse pole vault right over it to get straight to what they believe matters. Guess I had it coming.”

Six months later they were living together – the first time for Sage, the fourth for Dodge.

                                              +++

One of the first things she did was throw out the Eddie Bauer jacket. The cusp of hair, she discovered, was more problematic. It seemed to serve a utilitarian purpose and was designed to draw attention from the incipient hair loss Dodge himself had diagnosed as an early stage of androgentic alopecia, male-pattern baldness. Why not, she suggested, shave the head completely bald rather than squander energy in the perpetuation of a ruse that would fool no one and only yield dismal evidence of his own sense of insecurity? He tried to comply, shaved one side of his head and lost heart, looking in a mirror and extrapolating the total pattern from the hairless swath, the unflattering shape his head would unshell were he to continue. Sage didn’t want to admit it, given that he was now at her urging irrevocably 3-quarters in possession of a full head of hair, but he was right: the shaved head would only make apparent a somewhat asymmetrical skull, a peanut-shaped outcropping. The word was gibbous, wasn’t it?

No, that would be glabrous.

They went shopping for a stylish knit skully but finally settled on a white cotton weave sun hat handmade in Costa Rico, with brim and crown, side and back cape for UV protection, black cord lacing band and chin strap. (Thistled by guilt, Sage thought of the Costa Rican ranchers and farmers who worked the arid mesas, sizzling beneath pointlessly hot tropical sun, to harvest raw materials that would eventually, thousands of miles later, appear as the sale-reduced item concealing the quarter moon of baldness on Dodge’s head.) The flaps of the cape effectively curtained both sides of the head, haired and shaved. Even after the hair had grown back, Dodge wore the hat to all his classes, inside the apartment he shared with Sage, soaking in the hideous clawfoot style bathtub with peeling psoriatic enamel, refusing to remove the hat even when he slept at night. In retrospect she should have known that was some kind of weird sign, but she was too busy listening to what he had to say.

Yet she was reluctant to judge Dodge too hastily. She knew that her own life was less than perfect. It had surrounded her, since arriving in the United States at the age of eight with her family, in a cylinder seamless as a corked bottle’s glass, the long-contained stale-aired silence pressuring the glass like her own pair of palms, as though by force the bottle containing the feelings she lived inside could be jiggled from the shelf it sat on, pushed off to shatter against the promise embedded in the shale and stone that was America. She listened to Dodge, who talked more than anyone she’d ever known, talked often in a perplexing blur that resembled memory in an unravel of trauma, talked unknowingly in the middle of the night as though sleep were his cell phone, went on and on at the ever-renewing opportunity of the first limbo-enveloped moment of waking. But he was also willing to listen, and it was then she realized that for a long time she had wanted, desperately, to be heard. She began to tell him all the things that uncertainty and fear had zipped shut between her lips, all the bottled things yearning to break free.

She told Dodge what she had suspected and observed but had never to another revealed: that in America there was a tacit understanding that the country was a womb, a geography that spread its legs and bore down, the spill of each new birth instantly blood-embraced as its own. When you were born in America, Sage had theorized darkly while Dodge listened patiently, you belonged, you were a son or daughter with a natural birthright. She saw that as in any large family the children vied for attention, affection, privileges and rewards, and that the children lucky enough to outwardly reflect the traits and characteristics possessed by the parents were instinctively favored and enjoyed immediate advantages.

Next in line were the sons and daughters who outwardly resembled the parents the least, as though their features were shaped by remote branches of the family tree more cryptic and disturbing. What parents wanted to look into offspring’s’ faces and see the slant of eyes or the slope of a nose not their own? Sage described a family gathered around the dinner table, the children lifting their plates in raucous competition, the parents completely unconscious – or so they would maintain if called to task – that the servings they dished out were apportioned in such a way that the choicest morsels, the most delectable helpings were subtly rationed to the children most like themselves.

And then there were the others.

“What others?” Dodge asked. When sensing disappointment or disenchantment his interest was always sharp and probing, a scalpel of curiosity he used on others like they were post-mortem on a slab and he was a med student concerned less with saving lives than with the immediate intoxication that found its climax in the cut. Putrefaction that billowed once the surface was sliced was what Dodge needed to see. His own background of antiseptic privilege made him an eager tourist of emotional landscapes where bloody history was rumored to have taken place.

It was Saturday evening and they were sitting in the coffee shop on the second floor of Barnes & Noble bookstore, Dodge’s favorite haunt, the intellectuals’ version of a wild unpredictable night on the town. People sat at tables alone, living dangerously. Between flipping pages they nibbled on ill-groomed vegan sandwiches growing sprout beards. They fidgeted eyes around the room like suspicious matter flicked off a gnawed fingernail.

“If the analogy is America the parent,” Sage explained, “native-borns the children, with plenty of favoritism in evidence, then there are adopted children too, step-children.”

“And who are the step children?” Standing or sitting, in any space he inhabited, Dodge was constitutionally unable to remain completely still. The seams of his skin yawned, forsaking containment, like a baseball having a nervous breakdown every time it approached the bat, jumping out of its stitches.

“Anybody not born in America, but who came to America to be reborn.”

“You’re a citizen,” Dodge pointed out. “You’re as much an American as I am.”

She tossed her head and the hair that was not yet cut short and dyed blonde moved reverently, congregations of sable and amber genuflecting to goddesses of pagan ringlet and whorl. “You can’t possibly be that naïve.”

“I can be anything I want to be,” he said casually. He then took that casualness and described its negation in an antonym of hands, making a complicated gesture that was, really, impossible to read. “So can you. That’s the whole thing about America, isn’t it?”

Between teeth she flossed with air, she produced a residuum of sound, her favorite for dismissal: “Fffsssst.” Then – “‘Behold, there is a stranger in our midst and he has come to destroy us.’ John the Baptist knew what he was talking about, or he knew what people needed to hear. Today it’s a littler subtler though. Or often not so. Don’t worry, it’s not like I expect you to understand.”

“Tell me then.”

Those three magic words, spoken on those frequent occasions when loneliness and vulnerability, like sadistic gardeners working the rack instead of the lawn, conspired to stretch Sage taut and rake her out of her skin, accounted for the chemistry that had grown like ensorcelled weeds between them. He often invited Sage to revisit the past, to display the exotic artifacts of a childhood in Iran preserved in her memory’s museum. Classmates, acquaintances, friends – in all the time she had lived in the United States, no one else had coaxed her through that difficult maze. With something like the disgust and consternation right-wingers must feel when they believe they’re observing bootstraps left unpulled or opportunities squandered, she’d discovered that so far as life lived anywhere else on the planet was concerned, America was too busy being America to show other than the sort of interest nominally reserved for newsworthy or dramatic atrocities: Bosnians living in America were queried about their country of origin only for accounts of bloody dismemberment, rape, how many bursting bombs they’d counted on any given day bridging sunrise to sunset. Rwandans or Sierra Leonians or Haitians would have been encouraged to recount whether phantom limbs still tingled (Sage didn’t know yet that Sierra Leonians, Rwandans, Haitians, and others of their melonotic ilk weren’t welcomed with the same open arms as their counterparts in misery and desperation on American shores, but would soon come to be appalling enlightened).

Dodge was simply, perhaps strategically, asking Sage to chronicle the consciousness of being an outsider that accompanied her like shadow to sundial through most of her minutes. After all, he was a writer, or wanted to be one, like his father, who had two years ago received the National Book Award for a novel that through the authority of unanimous critical decree had been for many weeks fashionably displayed on the coffee tables of readers with a profoundly vital interest in the direction of the contemporary cannon, few of whom had actually possessed the stamina to complete. Weighing in at a daunting 1800 pages, the sheer physical density of the novel ensured that readers failing to finish it still received their money’s worth, could yet derive full value from the purchase in ways limited only by the imaginative fertility of buyers. A national tabloid reported the story of an elderly New York woman who, leaving Borders one evening with Jack Dodge’s Walk Upon The Earth hefted in both arms to her breast like a suckling baby, had managed, with a display of superior upper body strength stunning for one so advanced in age, to put the tome to effective use as a bludgeoning device when a mugger attempted a purse snatching, the mugger succumbing to an axe-like blow of the book’s spine delivered to the head, grievously injured, hospitalized, then jailed as a paraplegic. On the front page of the tabloid she was posed with a strained smile lifting two copies of the book affixed to a bar like a barbell, with a caption that read Better Than Wheaties!

For a time alleged incidents implicating the book’s brobdingnagian dimensions ignited the popular imagination in mean-spirited anecdotes revealing the depth of the culture’s historical distrust of all things intellectual, the fabrications a kind of everyman-and-woman’s petty revenge: a book reviewer dropping dead of exhaustion as he toiled to turn the page from 1400 to 1401, a literature student driven to institutionalized insanity in her attempt to synopsize the plot for a book report, a determined reader who had suffered a fatal heart attack after ingesting prodigious amounts of cocaine around the clock to catalyze the blur of an attempted 2-week reading binge.

Dodge himself had tried to read his father’s novel and simply given up, then with pallid sarcasm communicated the futility of his effort to friends at the university, where his father, an emeritus, taught a graduate seminar on creative writing: “Somewhere between page 500 and 501 I fell, unfortunately, into a coma that set me back two whole semesters. Dad would have been royally pissed except for the fact that my tuition is written off gratis by the Board of Reagents or some other fucking Board because of his celebrity.” But while Dodge’s failure to finish the book might have indicated that he hadn’t inherited his father’s myopic drive and discipline, his desire to become a writer, to achieve the level of recognition and success that his father had risen to, endowed the son with a shrewdness that was compensation for the talent he feared had been somehow siphoned from his bloodstream.

Cultivating the enigma of a manner befitting a still-undiscovered but fated-for-fame young writer, Dodge carried a toolkit of well known writerly proclivities wherever he went, brandishing the contents of curiosity and observation like an intense mechanic with a compulsive desire to share his wrench fetish with the public. He would conspicuously jot notes on matchbook covers and napkins, on the back of his hand, feverishly whisper ideas into a battery-operated hand-held Sony tape recorder. But most of all he posed questions, questions that no one had bothered to ask Sage, and she had an immense and earnest need to be questioned.

“I’m listening,” Dodge assured her, leaning forward across the table. “Listening with a desire to hear that borders, frankly, on freakishness.”

“I can abridge this whole maybe complex thing with a few things that happened years ago.”

“No abridgements allowed. Your life can’t be reduced to some kind of Reader’s Digest account. Give me details. Details will set you free.”

“It started in 2nd grade, at Marshall’s Elementary in Pasadena. That’s where we lived back then. We were here after the Islamic Revolution.”

Notebook in hand, Dodge began to write. A pen pulled his hand across a page that was his stage, like a spotlight pulling a ham actor toward the cynosure of spectators’ eyes in a bad community theater production.

“I went through all the stuff you’d expect. My English wasn’t bad but it had that slightly formal ESL quality to it – my uncle taught me, maybe that’s how he’d learned, I don’t know – and worse than that, my accent was way beyond heavy. At first, the kids in school didn’t know what to make of it. They thought it was some sort of Dracula accent and I was from Transylvania or wherever Dracula comes from. When I told them I was from Iran, it didn’t register with them. They didn’t know where Iran was and I guess they had never heard of it. Then a few days later this kid, Dean Peters, in the yard at recess when everybody’s around makes this general announcement. ‘I know where Iran is. My dad told me it’s in the Middle East.’ I knew something was coming, I just didn’t know what. Pamela Abish says, ‘I know where that is, it’s where they have Aladdin’s lamps and stuff.’ Well, I didn’t know anything about Aladdin, and why should I, it’s an Arabian tale, but it sounded innocent enough.”

Sage paused, and when she spoke again, lifted the lid on a trunk where inflection and accent had been mothballed by the years. Nimbly she slipped out of her slight bikini of California surf-and-sun intonation, lifted the garments from storage and clothed herself in them to see, after more than a decade’s passing, if they still fit. Hearing herself, she was both pleased and surprised, as though viewing in a mirror a figure still shapely, one that time had been quite kind to. Astonished, Dodge watched her model the cadences of Farsi in broken English, a perfect re-creation of the timid tempo twisting the tongue when it tried English on for the first time.

“Thees lil ten-year-old girl, vhut she know? She knowing nothing. She not knowing anything about lamps. Then they asking so many questions I din know how to answer. I say, I born in Iran, in a lil town call Ahwaz, ees all I can say. Deen, he talking all a suddin saying, ‘My dad say you see Meeddle East on TV, the there they craza there. Always make screaming, shouting, making very ugly faces in camera, shaking the air vith their fist. They bring their beards and bombs and vild hate over here, they wanna blow up everything. On TV, they screaming like vild animal. Burn the president of U.S. on signs.’ I din know what he was saying. I din see none these craza there in Ahwaz. Now my heart feel like it an explosion, because I know they gonna make me be es-pay-shay-ley different from them. Then every day it vas like dat. They always asking me, ‘Vair your camel you ride to school vith? Vair your black dress to hide bomb in? I don’t know bombs. It make me feel real bad for my family. My baba proud to pay taxes here, be a good seedsen just like everybody else.”

Sage dropped the accent, the inflections, consigned the garb to its trunk, carefully laid the fabric atop nostalgia’s black mothballs, gently latched the lid. “Kid stuff. So what, right? You got the same if you were too fat, too thin, or if you wore braces, or your clothes were ridiculous, whatever. But the difference was if you were fat you could lose the weight. If you were thin you could gain it. Braces would come off one day. Clothes could be changed. But you can’t change who you are.”

“What you really mean is, you can’t change how people see you. But here’s the thing. People? Fuck how people see you,” Dodge asserted widely, meaning it. Glances from tables nearby swerved briefly in his direction like eye traffic, halted at his stop sign of narrow red glare, burned retinal rubber in reverse. “They always see what they want to see. But that was the worst of it. I mean, as lousy as that was, you shook it off, you grew up, you’re you now, you became magnificent.”

That was not the reaction she’d anticipated, and when he bolted his hands forward in a lightning streak of sudden ardor to cover hers, she pulled away, a dissipating cloud. “It all depends on how you define worst. Remember the hostage situation, the Americans held hostage in Teheran? My theory is that’s was when Iranians living here went out of their way to call themselves Persian. Anything to take the heat off, which there was quite a lot of at the time. Persia? As in the Persian Empire? Persia stopped being Persia hundreds of years ago. If you were calling yourself Persian because you were proud of the history, I guess maybe that would have been one thing. But that wasn’t it. To me, mote a sefam, sorry Charlie, but it was more like trying to pass.”

Dodge was puzzled. His expression fell into a hole his mouth dug and tried to climb back up to his face. His eyebrows were reaching down to help pull the expression back up. “Trying to pass?”

“You don’t know what passing is?”

“Oh, passing. Yeah, sure.”

“Then okay, that was the climate. It was like … well, sometimes people would think I was Hispanic. I mean, it’s that way even now. But back when the hostage situation happened, I told my mom how people would sometimes ask me that – if I was Hispanic. I thought, I don’t know, my mom would be amused by it or something. But you know what she said? ‘Let them think that. There’s no skin coming off your spine, so tell them nothing else.’”

Scrutinizing Sage the way a second hand measures a tick, making his assessment of her somehow unpleasantly and inescapably finite, he admitted, “I can kind of see how they’d think that.”

“That’s not the point. Jesus, Dodge. You make it so I don’t even want to go on telling you.”

“I know the point. Per your previous point of the climate of the times being such that to avoid all the prejudice aimed at the Middle East, you were encouraged to hide your background. Per that.”

The fact that Dodge had actually understood did little to dampen her sense of frustration. “So when people at that time asked what I was, in this cautious sort of way, I didn’t say Hispanic and I didn’t say Persian. I said Iranian.”

“I’m Iranian, hear me roar.”

“Yeah, in numbers easy to abhor” – she sang it to the tune of, in a voice dark and rich, like a stream of maple syrup amplified by a microphone – “A song Helen wouldn’t have been at all ready to sing.”

Sage thought he would be amused by the pun, but instead he said, “Then fuck her and the recording contract she rode in on.”

“I don’t know about all that,” Sage responded. “Why all the hostility?”

“What do you expect? The story upsets me.” He had stopped writing and was sullenly building a little monument from a paper napkin he’d been shredding that seemed, to Sage, to mark the growing territory of her impatience with his mood. He continued, “It pisses me off. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

“I don’t know how it’s supposed to be, but that’s how it is. Listen, since it upsets you so much, forget it. The story only gets worse.”

“That’s so much less than fair, Sage.” He forced the room to spread-eagle and with his eyes roughly frisked its corners for a bathroom. “Is there such a thing as irritable bladder condition? They have a condition for bowels, why not the bladder? Why put the bladder in a position of subordinate importance?”

“That’s a question I’d rather not speculate on, Dodge.”

“A quick run to the john’s where I’m headed, the loo as you call it, then you can finish telling me when I get back. I know you. You won’t want to do it when I get back but I want you to promise me.”

“I really don’t like making promises if I don’t think I can keep them.”

“Sage. Who gives a shit whether they’re kept or not? The important thing’s is just to say it. Then, if you feel like it, follow through. That’s my approach, anyway.”

He rose, donating himself to space rather than moving through it, the path he walked his pauper, generous in the wide benedictory swing of arms and legs. He moved in a sort of oblivion beyond self-confidence, paying his way forward with the deep-pocketed currency of his entitlement, a famous father’s son. During their public outings he was always disappearing to find a bathroom, his cell phone clinging to his ear like a fender unable to forget a recent collision. Sage surmised that the frequent hasty bathroom trips offered him respite from whatever it was that drew him imperatively to her. Whatever Dodge sensed or believed she withheld, he demanded from her, and whatever he demanded she instinctively withheld. Was this an approach to the mysterious carpentry of relationships she’d witnessed in the echoing mansion of marriage her own parents had built with their decades’ unvarnished boards? The ritualized withdrawals and withholdings, the codified arrivals and departures: doors opening and closing on shushed hinges, floors therealized by dry papery phantoms living in haunted soles of rushing feet? From her child’s bed she heard them when late-night wakefulness shingled her eyelashes and sleeplorn she laid, in Iran, in California. It was the same in homes of relatives, that shadow depositing its hush between the would-be noise of men and women: muted bursts of speech, quietly heated exchanges in peppery Farsi, always diminishing.

And so from the prow-like vantage point of a new generation, she’d peered forward through her future’s back-flung foam and mist, made promises to herself that were shaped and defined by their relation to what she’d always known – the things she would or wouldn’t do or say, how she wouldn’t or would behave with men, promises she was more than a little surprised to find herself not keeping with Dodge. But she still needed him for the wells of his ears she dropped words in, his questions.

Dodge returned from the bathroom, though Sage hadn’t seen him crossing the room. He simply and spookily appeared at their table, an affront to fundamental cause-and-effect logic, like the inch of fingernail that wasn’t there one week ago on a decedent’s finger. His legs jackhammered jitter, drilling into the foundation that supported standing still. Finally he spun his chair, a top twirled off a pliant string of fingers, so that the seat was facing him, then gunslinger style swung a leg, as though to impress Bat Masterson, over the backrest to squarely sit.

“Please. Continue.”

“Let’s just go. I’m tired. I don’t feel like it.”

“Sage. Sage. Don’t make me beg, because you know I will, if deemed necessary.”

“Dodge? Are you one of those guys who actually have to be told that no means no? No.”

Now he was on his knees, palms pressed to his heart, while people openly stared. “Sage, now I’m begging.”

That was another thing about Dodge that she had found attractive when she wasn’t wearied by it – his apparent disregard for limits and proprieties, the line between public and private he made almost transparent and permeable, his regal indifference to the eyebrows that knitted in distress over his behavior and wrung foreheads into dish towels of frown. Sage didn’t so much aspire to such unconcern as revel in the power it possessed to confirm the validity of her own kindred tendency to subvert convention, stand it on its head so that its starched gown cascaded crudely to reveal the undergarments fraying along the edges, bleached out from all the repeated attempts at sanitization.

But here she drew her own line: she knew it was easy for Dodge, convention and tradition meant less to him than scenic landscape to a lantern fish, and he’d been born in a country that bumped its head into walls trying to scrape up tradition as it went along. First and foremost Dodge was Dodge and had little interest in anything not-Dodge, and second, Dodge was a white American, though he would never understand how that could possibly matter so far as the luxury of his choices in behavior were concerned. How could he be, when she was only just beginning to be aware of those ramifications herself?

“Get up, you fool,” she said, laughing in spite of herself.

He extended a hand. “That’s better. Now help me up.”

When she reached down, he grabbed her hand and pulled. Sprawling from her chair she fell atop him. She struggled fiercely but he wasn’t convinced. The table above them leaned over to watch, calculating the distance to the floor. Salt and pepper shakers decided the risk was worth the thrill, no pain no gain, closed their eyes and jumped. Soon they found standing over them an older man wearing spectacles thick with fathoms of glass, pelagic in the suggestion of remote depths seen magnified through the deck of a glass-bottomed boat, fragments of green coral replacing eyes in sockets. He wore a corporate apron of some kind hugely pouched, stuffed with baby kangaroos of paperback books. As such he seemed to represent a neoteric hybrid species, that of the aquatic marsupial. In a tirade that bobbed his limbs like parade floats in a Rose Bowl of palsy he spoke of disruption, destruction of property, hooliganism, barbarity, civilization withering to ash. “Please stop this and leave, just get out,” the man concluded, breathless, “before I’m forced to call the police.”

Pulling Sage to her feet, Dodge replaced the hat on his head – the hair by now had grown back, but he’d shaved it three-quarters bald again – brushed off the bloated shorts that a fashion-impaired and color blind monster summoned from the pages of Grimm might have chosen to wear for a much-needed night out on the town, an escape from the mossy confines of the lair. He pointed at a cardboard display rack across the room throwing its tantrum of bratty Day-Glo colors, books stacked in alluring kindergarten blocks.

“What makes this place a repository of civilization are its books, which represent the highest and most refined example of intellectual achievement. Those books there,” Dodge said loudly, “were written by the National Book Award winning author, Jack Dodge. You are lucky to have those books and what they represent on your shelves. When was the last time you had a writer of that caliber consent to appear here to help you hawk your wares? Those books were written by my father. My name is Thaddeus Dodge, the son of the man whose books you are selling, a man who is the professor emeritus of literature at our esteemed university. Maybe if you weren’t busy belatedly collecting credits at the community college for your Associate Degree you’d know that. In fact I think Jack Dodge has deigned to appear here tomorrow to give a reading at 6:00 p.m., – he’s a notoriously late riser – and to sign his book, for your customers. Your customers, who will form a line outside your door a half a block long, will be so thrilled that they will not only buy Jack Dodge’s book, but others as well. The sales figures the store reaps tomorrow alone may well figure into the size of the meager Christmas bonus you receive this year. Three percent is better than two, do we agree? His book is an ode to what is spontaneous and life affirming in human nature. If I tell my father that some pompous corporate functionary could not countenance my alleged behavior, which for all you know may have been engineered by Jack Dodge’s publicity staff to dramatize the very spontaneity that is the major theme of his celebrated book, as it relates to everything sterile and straighjacketed in our culture, he will not be inclined to honor his commitment. Unless you are Mr. Barnes or Mr. Noble, you will have much explaining to do. Now, against my better judgment, we intend to sit back down. We’re going to collect ourselves and recover from your humiliating accusations. Damaging accusations, really, that I’m sure my father’s army of rapacious lawyers could have a virtual field day with. Especially after I tell all 800 of them that my being under the table was most definitely not a celebration of spontaneity, so there goes the whole publicity stunt theory, but the simple consequence of slipping on your floor, which was, need I point out, negligently slimed. Did I mention that my hip hurts, right now? I’m bruised, the hip is bruised, the hip is quietly throbbing. Now think of all the bad publicity that would ensue. You have a ‘manager’ of Barnes and Noble. Instead of inquiring about possible injuries suffered by patrons, this ‘manager’ goes off the deep end, accusing two eminently sane and intelligent adults of rolling around on your grimy floor for fun. Understand?” He made a V with his fingers and walked them along a tightrope rapidly and repeatedly back and forth between their eyes. “Does any of this seem at all clear to you?”

The man lowered his head and mumbled something, turning to leave.

“Sir?” Dodge said. He stepped forward and placed his arm gently, confidingly around the older man’s slumped shoulders. The man flinched pitifully as though struck with a beam from a building Dodge had set aflame with pyromaniacal glee. “I’m not certain I heard your apology.”

“Please, I’m very sorry, I had no idea …” he said, almost whispering. “I’d like to offer you anything from our food concession you’d care to have …”

“No thanks,” Dodge replied loudly. “Frankly, all you need now is for me to add ptomaine poisoning to my rapidly growing list of grievances.”

Other customers stopped in mid-chew, looking gravely at their sandwiches.

The man began to retreat, actually bowing as he shuffled backward. He bowed so deeply that the kangaroo paperbacks leaped from the pouch and spilled to the floor as though striking out for the horizonless freedom of the New Zealand outback. For a moment he stood, paralyzed with chagrin, staring at the books, then decided to leave them where they had bounded off in a doleful little heap. Hurrying away, he disappeared behind a managerial-looking door in the back of the room next to the customer restrooms.

A much younger clerk emerged from behind the same door, dispatched to retrieve the books. He too was engulfed in a proprietary apron B & N monogrammed and sporting an enormous marsupium. The clerk, who bore a striking resemblance to Ron Howard in his portrayal of Ritchie Cunningham circa Happy Days, smiled at Dodge and Sage, covertly flashing the universal semaphore for approval, the double-fisted thumbs-up.

Sage was both exhilarated and deeply appalled. “Jesus, Dodge. What the hell?”

Dodge was busy returning the thumbs-up to the clerk.

Under the table she kicked him.

“What? You have to stand up to little Nazis like that.”

Sage spoke with her head lowered, hand visored above downcast eyes, chin tucked into her shoulder blade, aiming a muffled whisper into the lavalier mic pinned to her lapel by the midget of humiliation loitering at her side. She aspired to rise above, but was not yet completely immune to, the sting of public mortification. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“Your wish is always and forever my command. The story first though.”

“Let’s … get … out … of … here.”

“Don’t make me beg, Sage. You know what happened the first time.”

She silently vowed that at home she would ambush Dodge when he was in his customary writerly idea-garnering sprawl on the sofa and smilingly slide the bottom of a freshly heated sauce pan down the aquiline slope of his nose – twice, both down and up. Without raising her head, she said softly, “The hostage time. I was driving somewhere. I had pulled out of our driveway, I was going somewhere. A few blocks away, I noticed a car was following me. Okay, wait. An hour earlier I had been at a Pizza Hut with some friends. Everybody was talking about the hostages. Somebody at our table said something like ‘And anyway, that shows you what the Shah thinks of his own people, living in a palace made of gold worth millions or maybe billions of dollars while his own people starve to death in poverty.’ I said, ‘True, and the President lives in the White House while millions of Americans live below the poverty line.’ Understand, I wasn’t defending the Shah, or theocratic fascism, as a viable mode of government. I was just pointing out that the logic he was using was somewhat flawed. I forget who said it, that dingbat Buchanan, probably. There were these other guys sitting in the booth behind us. They started making remarks. My crew was leaving anyway, so who cared? I drove home. I came back out and was driving somewhere else. A few blocks away, I’m aware this car’s been following me. The car pulls alongside and I see it’s got five guys in it. I’m pretty sure it’s the same ones from the Pizza Hut. All the windows in their car are open. I’m driving and they start lobbing eggs at my car, leaning out and throwing them. I slammed on the brakes and they kept going, trailing all the obligatory racial slurs, raghead, etcetera. Stop writing. This isn’t fodder for true confessions.”

Dodge, wounded, looked at his pen, as though applying to it for moral support. “I was just thinking what sort of pathetic racist cowardly bastards would throw eggs at a woman alone in a car.”

“Sure. I suppose you’re right. Maybe it would have been better if they’d lobbed eggs at me and a passenger in the back seat.”

“Ah, there’s that cutting logic that keeps me on my toes. You know what I mean. Did you call the police?”

“No, I did not call the police. I sat there a few seconds, then I took off.” She paused. “I tried to catch up with them.”

Dodge watched with a mouth so widely open that disbelief crawled out, perched on his upper lip, then helped to escort awe, skepticism, and surprise to safety on the perch where it sat. A long line of other adjectives, bottlenecked but focused on the light at the end of throat’s tunnel, threatened to emerge as well. “To do what?” He attempted to roadblock the continuation of the unreasonable exodus from the still-open mouth by proposing logical scenarios. “To get the license number?”

“No, I wasn’t thinking about any license number.”

“You weren’t thinking about a license number? Then what?” he pressed.

“I had no idea. I was angry, it goes without saying. Then the anger subsided, and I just … I just wanted to talk to them.”

“What would you have said to them?” Dodge snorted flatly, swine lodged in nostrils playing amateur trombone. “Heil Hitler?”

“I would have thought of something.”

“No doubt, no doubt. But you would have been in no position to talk to them. You had no power.”

“What are you talking about?”

“’Power comes from the barrel of a gun,’” Dodge quoted. “Huey P. Newton said that, or else he was excerpting Fanon. I’m not sure which.”

It was Sage’s turn to be surprised. He didn’t know what passing was, yet he was conversant on the subject of Huey P. Newton? “Huey P. Newton? One of the founders of the Black Panther Party?”

“The long defunct Black Panther Party. Bingo, baby. My kindda guy. Determined, dangerous, gifted with chaotic intellect, more than a little high-strung. But wiser an observation was never made.” He dropped his hands and fidgeted with something under the table. Then he spilled his torso forward to shield what was covered in his hands. “Thus.”

She saw an aggressive flash like a dark metallic fang when he opened his hands, then saw the Beretta, then it disappeared under the table. “Was that what I think it was?” Though her hands were flat on the tabletop, they grew warm and began to tremble, while her body became a dinosaur of immobility, freezing in a swiftly avalanching Ice Age of utter and complete astonishment.

Dodge shrugged, lifting the question’s absurdity from his shoulders. “Hey, let’s go somewhere and get some real chow.”

                                                +++

For the rest of the weekend and all the following week, they argued about the gun. The argument itself became a secondary and superordinate gun, a revolver with the chamber of a .357 into which they inserted bullet after bullet, took turns firing pot shots at each other. Or rather, she argued, she fired while on the swaybacked sofa, presenting a stationary but deceptively elusive target, Dodge reposed half-draped beneath the malodorous quilt that was one of the few personal effects he had brought with him when they rented the apartment, an “heirloom” he inherited from his grandmother, and so Sage arguing, firing, her bullets bouncing off the Kevlar of Dodge’s resolve to avoid participation in a meaningless duel. None of that energy-depleting emotional dueling for Dodge, no thank you. He simply and steadfastly maintained that the gun was an unfortunate but necessary tool of trade in his “line of work.”

“Line of work? You mean your grueling job as a student flunking out of the university?

Laughing in appreciation, Dodge raised one hand, high-fived it with the other.

Sage had always felt stained by her beauty, had worked to scrub it away with a brush that was carved from her disdain of things living only on surfaces. She splashed the stain with what others might have thought was the solvent of an excessive or false modesty. But it had nothing to do with pathological modesty, everything to do with empowerment. She had seen good little American boys learn their lessons in masculinity and grow up, become young men convinced that women were objects wrapped in life-like skin, then set about with indiscriminate purpose to acquire and hoard those objects, twisting women’s limbs in mannequin angles behind display windows and arraying them in racks with other collectibles.

From the evidence visible in the U.S. homes of relatives and in her own parents’ home, she inferred that good little Iranian boys had learned too, and from a lesson book much older, its pages webbed with the spidering catechism of antiquity: the source of the hush between the would-be noise of the older generation of Iranian men and women. If beauty’s burden was that it often led to objectification, then her answer to the dilemma was to simply downplay or ignore it. But now that Dodge was in apparent collusion with both sun and moon to fashion a Brillo Pad from every hour of night and day and use it to scrape away at her nerves, she was startled to see in mirrors that what she’d been indifferent to did matter after all: the beauty that others had applauded all her life was being slowly eroded. That erosion was well and good when it was part of her plan and she was in control, but not so good when it was the result of someone else who had taken control of the scrubbing away process. It was the old you don’t miss what you’ve got till it’s going or gone dilemma. The complexion of dark honey swirled in warm milk was growing mottled. She was a glass poured full of her own curdling skin, left to sour on a countertop of Dodge. Her fingernails, perhaps her single concession to feminine vanity, were brittle like Mr. Remmington’s animal-cracker leg bones, though she wouldn’t know that story for another 6 months. Her lips were still full buds, but they were chronically dry beneath a waxy build-up, frequent pollination by Chapstick bumblebees. Her head seemed a zone of quarantine for hair, a place where snarl and snag dwelt crazily in a permanent brunette asylum. It was so impossibly tangled that soon she would chose to cut it short rather than to try and free the inmates through the painful rehabilitation of the brush. Although she had never been one to be inordinately preoccupied with the joys and challenges of wardrobe coordination, Sage had taken to wearing the same slovenly black sweatpants and T-shirt she’d slept in to her classes. What about her weight? Flesh fell from her body like the suicidal participant of the ultimate extreme sport, the skydiver without a parachute.

“I meet all kinds of people, Sage, you know that. I’m out there, seeing what there is to see. I’m collecting, I’m mentally collating. My father told a 2,100-page story that I don’t think had a single page of real life in it, though I haven’t really read it. It was all a result of research and academic compilation, why, because the man had no experience to put into it, that’s why. Money, Sage. That’s the only thing he knew. His own father’d been a manufacturer of keychains, a man who built a financial empire with keychains.” Wrestling with the sumo of the sofa’s sag, he struggled to sit upright, flinging the miasmal opponent of the quilt to the floor, suddenly vehement. “My father was pampered by his father, ivory towered. But no one seemed to recognize the evidence of that in the book. Not the critics, not the readers, God bless all probably 36 of them who actually read the thing from start to finish.”

“So you’re saying what precisely about the gun?”

“Where I go, the people I meet, things can happen. Things can and will and do happen, Sage. The gun, I think of it like a press pass in reverse. I put myself in certain situations, some would say imprudently, so that I can know the things my father never knew, and tried to keep me from knowing. It’s easy to get in those situations. But sometimes, you need to get out fast. Getting out fast’s the hard part, Sage. Thus, the gun. Considering the fact that there’s no bullets in it, it’s really no more than a prop.”

“No bullets? Why is this the first time you’re saying that? Why didn’t you say that before, then?”

“I didn’t think you’d believe me. Now I’m just desperate for this whole back-and-forth thing between us to end.”

“So in the process of being out there gathering all this experience, have you shot anybody with that thing?”

“That’s a pretty poor trick question, Sage. But no,” Dodge insisted. “First of all, like I said, no bullets. But if I had bullets, I have to admit I’d maybe be tempted. I would be tempted to shoot people with it.”

“Shoot them? Kill them?”

“Kill them,” he repeated slowly. “Why, yes. Yes, I think so.”

“You must be spent, Dodge. I can see that your quest for sanity has been a long and arduous one.”

“I can possibly see how you’d make that observation.”

“But I don’t care how insane you are. I don’t want to see that thing again. I won’t ask you to get rid of it, because I think you’d just lie about it and tell me you did. But I don’t want you carrying that thing around outside when I’m with you.”

He didn’t bother to deny the accusation that he was a liar. He simply seemed relieved that they’d struck a temporary truce.

To Sage the relationship felt like being at the bottom of a staircase, expecting that final step and finding nothing but the massive brain-scrambling disorienting jolt of the landing – flatly, concretely, you’re pistoned out of and back to your senses. She knew that their time together was over but not finished. Dodge might have intuited the same. If he did, he would have also known that he could count on her need, instinctual and deep as viscera, to bring equilibrium and balance to the tilt and slope of unruly circumstance, to make certain things always connected full circle. He would be able to hold her on this technicality: he had listened to her when she needed a listener, now it was his turn. Her sense of fairness and her desire to avoid incurring an emotional debt would dictate that, for a time at least, she would be there to listen to him, to give back what she’d taken.

                                           +++

No, listening to Dodge go on and on wasn’t easy. It was talk clacking past on tracks, a string of boxcars so long that the railroad crossing sign left its red-flashing post of admonition and wandered off to relieve the kinks, stretch, restore numbed circulation. Early in the relationship she’d been intrigued by his observations, which seemed to illustrate an aptitude for introspection she hadn’t found in other boys she’d dated. Dodge’s confessions, as strange as they were, were nothing like the self-aggrandizing pronouncements of the beer-guzzling extroverts who had wasted too much of her time.

Dodge told Sage that just as she lived with the consciousness that she was and would always be, to whatever extent, an outsider, he’d had a similar problem, though in reverse: for as long as he could remember, he’d wrestled with the nagging festering hyperextended and almost hideously bloated consciousness of himself as an immured insider, being an organic part of a vast system he despised. Why despised? Because it was a system of elaborate and subliminal checks and balances that, while outwardly espousing the freedom and primacy of the individual, in actuality brought all of its considerable resources to bear on forcing the individual to adopt an average-joe perspective, to pledge allegiance to mediocrity, to cleave to the norm for the greater good of the collective, something called “society.”

How could anyone who aspired to be an exceptional writer find anything worth saying caged in the unexceptional? Shuffling around in a zombie trance of mediocrity? Looking out from an average-joe’s glassed-in view of the gray inside?

Admittedly, what he was about to describe didn’t sound as though it had anything to do with the average-joe’s perspective, but in an ironic way, it was in its superficiality the very plastic epitome of average-joeness.

                                           +++

When he was seven they’d lived in an exclusive Northern Wisconsin suburb that teased the senses with a titillation of shocking unrobed wealth. He still vividly recalled that to enter the platinum-studded G-string of his father’s million-dollar home, tucked snugly into the crotch-like V made by a backdrop of abutting dale and hill, visitors or residents passed through an iron gate that opened with electronic stealth between two tall pillars, stately as the legs of a Las Vegas showgirl.

On the other side of the iron gate was the road that undulated through the community, wryly known by its inhabitants as The Yellow Brick Road, a Mercedes-lulling leaflet-canopied parkway rolling through an Oz-like private enclave that seemed the product of wizardry. A wand must have been waved, shedding shimmering golden molecules that transformed the landscape into a haven where men and women led enchanted lives.

Commonplace were edenic sweeps and verdant slopes, labyrinthine hedges and marbled fountains and exotic flowering gardens, trestled pathways and Olympic-sized swimming pools and circular driveways, acreage sculpted, cultivated and maintained by small armies of environmental engineers, the grounds like an exteriorization of the sweetly effortless affective states generated by serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

His father, Jack Dodge, had written a first novel called Tread Upon The Clouds that had been published by the now-defunct Baby Bad Pants Books and summarily remaindered, with sales totaling all of $7,889 dollars for that fiscal year. That was roughly one-third the bi-monthly cost of maintaining the swimming pool. Where had the money come from? Over the castle-like front door of the cream-hued estate dangled the platinum-plated corporate logo of Jack Dodge’s father’s company, a gigantic figure of a naked man sitting on the edge of a bed, reminiscent of the statue of David though with grotesquely large genitalia, hefting above his head on sleekly muscled arms a keychain. The company had filed for Chapter 11, hovered on the verge on bankruptcy, and then Jack Dodge’s father had awoken one night after a diaphoretic dream with the startling vision of the naked man crowding his head like a seething population. The logo was met by public outrage, fanned flaming debates on the unapologetic prostitution of high art by the parasitic pimp of commerce. It became the target of howling condemnation in the media, yet one month later the meteoric financial redux of Big Gigolo Keychains, Inc. (previously Little Cheap Keychains, Inc.) was profiled in Forbes magazine as the most controversial chameleonic success story of the decade (“Christopher T. Dodge: Genius Or Manufacturing Gigolo?”). After extended litigation a court-ordered fig leaf eventually came to cloak the offending appendage, but the original unexpurgated version of the logo hung over the mansion’s doors. The spaciousness of the estate, which should have fed a seven-year-old boy’s sense of adventure, came to represent for Dodge aloneness, isolation, the terror of sprawling scopious freedom.

Listening, Sage remembered this: how she’d lived with her family in a one-story frame house on New York and Lake Street in California, near the dividing line between Altadena and Pasadena. How two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom united in protest against the dictator of 1500 oppressive square feet and the space-consuming infringement of six space-seeking people. How the protest was in vain, the rooms abandoning their picket signs in resignation to skulk back to their life of aggrievement in crammed walls. How in the single hallway that divided the front and rear of the house, a brother collided with his sister, their mother veering into their father, the father’s sister and her husband tipping into their daughter, the last three newly disembarked in America and almost fatally intimidated by the speed of English, the demonic speed of the 101 freeway, and the speed with which they were expected to flawlessly complete job application forms …

Dodge’s father sequestered himself in the north wing of the house, at the end of a roped-off corridor mother and son were forbidden to enter. Presumably he was there to write in unmolesting silence, though often strange sounds could be heard emanating from the sanctuary of the writing room. Dodge hung laced in the ropes, knocked there by a boxing glove of curiosity, hearing his father’s voice posing questions and then, moments later, the same voice pitched a feminine octave higher, answering in angry remonstrations. Or water, as though swung from buckets in singing sheets to splash against the walls. Or the sound of a cord or whip’s tail humming circles through the air, faster and faster, and sometimes a single trumpet note hit repeatedly, louder, then loudest. What these sounds actually were, why they were produced, Dodge never discovered.

His father would appear in the small auditorium that was the dining room for dinner each night without fail at precisely 7:00 p.m., a tall man thin as a compulsive gambler’s wallet, with stooped shoulders and a face barb-wired with beard, prematurely gray, dressed in sharply creased navy blue trousers – trousers, not slacks – that appeared to have been cut from construction paper and folded to encase legs, a thick navy blue shirt adorned with a soiled white tie. Dodge and his mother ate, his mother chattering, Dodge mechanically answering the bird-like chirps of her questions, his father sitting wordlessly and staring into the food heaped on his plate. His father would not eat and Dodge had never seen him eat, had never once seen his father even chew, though he held his fork in his left hand and the mouth made vague chewing motions. If forced to answer a direct question repeated by his wife at least a dozen times, if forced, he would respond in a beard-muffled mumble. There was something strange about the beard. It seemed attached to the face by an apparatus of some kind. Dodge seriously suspected the beard was synthetic, held in place by a beard harness.

On rare occasions during the day, Dodge might pass his father in one of the many wide hallways stretching spokes of echo through the house. His father would smile at him and say, “Hello Thaddeus Dodge,” all the while moving gradually to the opposite side of the hallway as Dodge approached. By the time Dodge passed, his father’s back would be pressed to the wall, the arms outspread against it, as though he were inching along a narrow ledge. Dodge walked on, looking back, over his shoulder.

Once Dodge asked his father as he passed, “Is that a fake beard?” His father, creeping along the wall apprehensively like a 1040 form with hints of undeclared income past IRS eyes, answered dimly, “Would Thaddeus Dodge like to grow a Jack Dodge beard?” “I don’t know. Maybe,” Thaddeus Dodge said cautiously. “Well, we’ll see what we can arrange,” his father replied.

His mother he saw more often, so often that he tried to avoid her.

Unable to engage her husband in conversation, sleeping in a bedroom separate from his, met by a silence that possessed the absorptive efficacy of tar and returned nothing on those rare occasions when she turned a corner somewhere in the house and encountered him, the husband politely listening but gradually and secretively backing inexorably away while she pocked his tar-like silence with words that were suctioned into viscous black negation – unable to engage the husband, she stockpiled all the microscopic rubble of her day and dump-trucked it down on Dodge. The boy was buried by it, the pebbles plugging his mouth, rattling over his eyes, crowding his nostrils and ears.

Even at that young age Dodge knew something was wrong. Years later he would come to realize that his mother was acting as his facilitator in an Oedipal drama more tawdry, even, than the original archetype: instead of Dodge subconsciously seeking to supplant his father in accordance with the prescribed process, his mother was acting as the proxy for Dodge’s subconscious, supplanting it, slaying the father on the son’s behalf and thus depriving Dodge of that crucial incestuous evolutionary stage in the development of the psyche. It wasn’t Dodge who wanted to take his father’s place in his mother’s bed. It was his mother, as the external representation of his subconscious, seeking to replace son with husband in her bed. Symbolically, of course. All of it was in some sinister way symbolic according to Freud, wasn’t it?

Needless to say, he avoided her whenever possible, though it wasn’t always possible. When the chauffer dropped him off after a grueling day in the prestigious Shulman Children’s Academy with its hopscotch of stressful curricula poorly disguised as play, designed to give children a “pre-educational edge” in preparation for the prestigious Shulman Elementary Academy, she would be there to greet him, waiting beneath the keychain, the ponderously genitaled titan platinumly logoed above the door that might have been hewn from the biblical arc’s broad timber.

Immediately the chattering like a migraine endowed with the power of incoherent speech would begin, Dodge’s head throbbing like the lurid Bayer commercial with her words. He invented simplistic ruses to escape entrapment in the web she spun around him, all variations on a single theme, The Mother Dispatched On A Bogus Quest, and she never seemed to catch on to that deception, falling for it every time. Could you please bring me a glass of water, a glass of lemonade, a glass of milk? No, I don’t want Amiee to do it, I want you to do it! Eager to be needed, flattered that she had been chosen over the maid, his mother would scurry off to the back of the house to enter the chrome and ivory tundra of the kitchen, trek its sterile Antarctic expanse, hastily grope the huge refrigerator’s iceberg bulk. When she returned with the glass of icy milk, the boy was gone.

Fled, was more accurately the word for it.

There were so many places to flee that the mind-cramming choices layered yet another stratum of grueling stress to his day, but eventually through error and trial he discovered what was to become his sanctum, a vine-camouflaged storage shed set far behind a marble-benched and pond-dotted rose garden bordering the swimming pool’s deep end. It was odd, though telling, that the storage shed, the size of a master bedroom, was actually larger than the maid’s living quarters, situated on an embankment not far away, at the property’s gated extreme.

Inside the shed junked with maintenance equipment and gardening tools and pool supplies, dust balls large as ice cubes floated in a cocktail of semi-darkness, and Dodge drank in the delicious atmosphere of secrecy. Though large, the shed’s size was not excruciatingly large like everything else in or of or on the estate, and he found its dimensions comforting, psychologically accessible, emotionally manageable. The shed in time became the intoxicating penetralia of a lonely boy’s imagination.

In a corner, beneath a window that was a rink where spiders had sliced across on asymmetrical silk blades, leaned a jumbled jujitsu of boxes and crates. Behind these he found a clunky medieval-looking telescope, as though the casing had been welded from oblongs of armored plating. It was impaled on a tripod, like a WWI Mark I tank pierced on the end of a fork. This became his periscope as the shed lowered him to dangerous depths, a submarine pursued by a giant squid secreting the ink Dodge would use years later to write his first murky tales, themes of sex and identity tangled in its tentacles.

It that shed, Dodge first discovered the forbidden world of sex.

                                            +++

The maid’s quarters with its unshuttered windows attached itself to the telescope’s lens like first love to photographic memory. He saw Aimee, the petite maid with straight nape-nuzzling hair, enter each day in late afternoon when her labor was done. The hair was scarlet as shyness lengthening on pale chaste cheeks. The pink uniform she wore slipped hipward one undone button at a time, falling to the floor in a crumpled staircase she climbed up in a leisurely two-step ascent, always the left foot first, followed by right. The wondrous magnification of the telescope revealed everything, even her toenails, painted ambulance-siren red.

He’d seen his mother in her undergarments, a ridiculous and slightly bizarre sight: A stout woman elaborately strapped in, tortuously trussed, nylon-clenched and complexly harnessed, the V below the latex sag of waist not a region of mystery but simply a place where the popo – his mother’s name for the penis – had been lopped off.

The maid was something altogether different. The black brassier holstering breasts blasting seven-year-old eyes with a voluptuous buckshot of flesh, the slip’s black waterfall of static, the black panties nibbling at the fruit beneath, a pear narrowly outlined on its small pelvic platter – the contrast between the semi-nude states of mother and maid struck stars from his skull, a brass-knuckled revelation. Dodge was fringed with erotic silia in the inchoate and nonlocalized fashion of the preadolescent and he had no outlet for it, his authentic knowledge of masturbation virtually non-existent.

And say that he’d been in possession of authentic knowledge, was a seven-year-old even biologically capable of orgasmic masturbation? One boy from the Shulman Elementary Academy authoritatively held court on the subject in the schoolyard during recess and vividly professed to have an intimate first-hand (a no pun intended wink) knowledge of its techniques and goals, taught to him by an older brother. The boy, Ricky, at nine years of age already slit-eyed and diminutively thug-like, defined masturbation as the process of spraying the popo – Ricky called it a dick, which sounded more brutally formidable than popo, though Dodge for some reason could not use the word – spraying the popo liberally with Pam cooking spray while sitting on the toilet and simultaneously producing a number two, called Taking A Dump. While spraying, it was necessary to think or repeatedly chant in a whisper the word pussy (pronounced poo-SAY, Ricky explained that this was the word for a girl’s popo, which was similar to a dick but different) and after number two was completed the underwear had to be pulled up and worn without wiping off the sticky saturation of the Pam. A walking around period was required, and during that time the Pam-sprayed popo would inevitably tingle, signaling that urination was imminent. Although this phase of the ritual to the uninitiated might appear to be nothing more than simple peeing, what was in fact transpiring was the actual act of masturbation itself, the popo releasing swimming “sperms” resembling tadpoles. The toilet was then flushed, the sperms sucked screaming down through the city’s interconnecting system of subterranean pipes to find their way after a treacherous rat-and-crocodile-fraught odyssey up into the toilet bowl of a girl at the exact moment when she was innocently sitting on and using her own toilet, the tadpole-sperms leaping up in the splash produced by either her number one or two and invisibly attaching to the unsuspecting buttocks. From there, the sperms made their way to the poo-SAY and took up permanent residence inside.

The process of masturbation could be repeated as frequently as necessary or desired, but the frequency was of course limited by the supply and availability of the Pam. Protected from eyes by night’s bodyguard, Dodge made his way down to the kitchen from his bedroom on the second floor and, standing tiptoed on a kitchen chair to reach to stainless steel cupboards, found no Pam cooking spray. Dejected, he consulted with Ricky at school, pulling him aside as though placing a bet with a tiny jockey moonlighting as a bookie. Ricky informed him, his eyes a slot-thin invitation to coin, that certain substitutes were inferior but acceptable, offering the knowledge in exchange for a dollar bill that he tucked with swift professional cunning inside his sock. Dodge stole a can of canola spray from the cupboard but once in the shed, he realized with an emulsifying heart that it was not equipped with a toilet.

Once again he consulted Ricky, this time at a cost of two dollars, and learned that a bucket partially filled with water (though preferably, Coke or Pepsi) would suffice. The Coke or Pepsi was out of the question, but the water was easily obtainable from the swimming pool. With a sensation like a vault in a two-ton lifejacket taking a swim, Dodge then realized that Ricky would doubtless deem the chlorine to be yet another problem, but the last time he had stolen the two dollars from his mother’s purse he’d almost been caught, and so in his imagination he saw Ricky declaring that water with chlorine was actually better than water without it, and even superior to Coke or Pepsi. He set about to purposefully forget that he hadn’t actually consulted Ricky, convincing himself in the end that he had. Then it occurred to Dodge in the middle of the night, sinkingly and devastatingly, that the bucket had no plumbing attached to deliver the urine with sperms to the toilet where the anonymous girl’s unsuspectingly receptive buttocks hung waiting like a basketball loitering in the hoop.

For a week, two weeks, he obsessed over the problem, focused on it with a single-mindedness that left him in a perpetual state of fretting enervation, the antediluvian telescope an eye patch stitched to left eye as he stared at the squandered opportunity of the magnified disrobing maid, the ritual he was unable to either initiate or consummate plunging him into an agony that was not unlike dog-paddling through a liquefied hell.

If necessity was the mother of invention, then Dodge learned that desperation was the father, thwarted masturbation the grandfather. Finally the answer came to him, clear as the click of an empty chamber in a game of Russian roulette, tremulous as the tide of relief click triggered: he could carry the bucket inside at night and dump it into the toilet!

Listening, Sage remembered this: how she’d lived with her family in a one-story frame house that often seemed to be a turnstile for people so distantly related that the feasibility of connection by bloodline was stretched to improbable lengths. How rooms bloomed with a revolving-door presence of grandparents and great-great uncles and seventh cousins’ aunts and the half-sisters of brothers-in-laws’ mothers and finally even the friends of her father’s, old colleagues from the National Iranian Oil Company where he’d worked as a salaried engineer for twenty years. How those rooms were crowded with Iranians seeking asylum or better educations for their children or an escape from religious, cultural, or sexual repression, wealthy and middle-class and poor Iranians wondering if the American fable was true, praying that the song sung by America was beautiful and pure, hoping that the spirit and ideals of America were intact and that the country still spread its arms to embrace all the weary pilgrims longing for rebirth and burning with the desire to give back more than they might ever possibly take, Iranians gambling on the generosity of welcoming shores that had not been eroded by suspicion, by hatred, by minds that were bolted doors. Many who arrived before the Islamic Revolution found the American homecoming of their dreams, many arriving after did not.

Sage saw them laboring to learn the rules, to find tiny apartments for thronging families, to find work no matter how menial, to obtain Visas, to obtain permanent residency status, to dance around the trapdoors of immigration authorities, to digest the culture, to speak the language, to understand the jokes of TV sitcoms, to memorize the constitution, to belong. As a lighthouse is obligated in a storm to take the place of a moon derelict in its duty, so her parents opened the doors of their home out of a sense of obligation. They hoped to loosen, even if for a week, a day or an hour, the rigormortis grip of fear around the necks of their countrymen-and-women, so that those aspirants to the American dream might catch their breaths for a moment, in surroundings where the last vestiges of what was familiar still vibrated, before moving out, moving on.

That was part of what she didn’t tell Dodge because the trusting time when she might have shared all the nuances of her history with him had already come and gone, leaving her to suspect that her need to find willing ears wasn’t as important as the landscape inside the head attached to the ears. And there was something else she would never tell Dodge: how Kazem, a nineteen-year-old man befriended by a great aunt, had welded her eye to his own telescope, showing her things that she was neither prepared nor wanted to see.

On that evening, there were more people than ever gathered in the house, coming and going. It was March and they were celebrating Noruz, the Persian calendar New Year. The ceremonial table and spread, the sofreh-ye haft-senn, stood in the living room, bountiful with its symbolic array of icons. The air was expansively meshed with the aromas of sabzi polow ba mahi, rice with fresh herbs and fish, ash-e reshteh, noodle soup, samanu, wheat sprout pudding, nan-e nokhodchi, the freshly baked chick-pea cookies that Sage loved. The trampoline of countless children bounced beneath the confounded feet of elders. Music, traditional Persian alternated with American hit-parade pop, consumed all oxygen, leaving only a cheerful humidity for breath. The older men claimed a space for themselves and their laughter in the garage, then the laughter was shouldered aside by passionate debating. Rice dusted with saffron, with candied orange peels, with barberries. Shrimp curry, marinated lamb shanks with eggplant stew. Women with rotating bracelet-wrapped wrists dancing in the kitchen, spurring each other on with handclaps and exclamations of gleeful challenge. They had complexions that were pallid as starlight or that roamed the spectrum between copper and bronze, and some were olive-skinned, and some darker. Those with the palest complexions were held to be most desirable by men. The much older women with the serious matriarchal faces sat imperturbably on the sofa or in high-backed chairs near the sofa, stolidly drinking black tea. Sage was charged with the task of serving them the black tea. There was an extremely old woman whose hair had somehow managed to bypass the graying years and hung its organically black frame behind the small square wall of her face, with its crumbling plaster of wrinkles. Sage served her tea, watched by the woman’s feline eyes, purring from their pupils. She placed the silver tray on the table and when the woman smiled and reached out to touch her, Sage darted off to the porch, shaken by the skeletal terror the very young feel in the presence of the toothlessly ancient. Where was her mother? Her father must have been in the garage. Children taxied back and forth along the runway of the slightly slanted porch, bordered below by a tiny garden ranked with nasturtiums like cars lined for unleaded at a dime a gallon. Sage boarded and became a passenger on a Concorde of flying legs. Back and forth they ran, they zoomed.

Kazem, the young man who’d been in the house for a week and slept on the hardwood living room floor in a sleeping bag, sat on the steps with a plastic plate like a perfectly round blue ink spot balanced on his knees, snacking on stuffed grape leaves, cheese, salted cucumber slices, following Sage with his eyes. Hey, Scherazade. You’ll run yourself ragged, come sit with me. She sat next to him, he was thin and desolate as a winter tree, with great dark liquid eyes, a dark shaggy lawn of hair. His pale fingers trembled slightly when he raised the cheese to his almond-shaped lips. I’ll teach you more English. Your uncle Ali has good English, but I can promise you that mine is much better. Do you know the word sassafras? No? It’s a smart-aleck tea that talks back to you when you drink it. Sassy tea, naughty tea. Chawee-ye mehrabun.

Sage laughed, imagining. He looked around. It’s getting to be night. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was never no night and the day was here all the time? Sage asked how one would sleep. You would take a night pill. Swallow a pill like a Fred Flintstone vitamin and it would be night inside you. You see? That’s why I have these shadows under my eyes, because it’s night … inside me. Stop taking the pills, with authority she said. Why didn’t I think of that! He was laughing, his bony toes dancing delightedly in leather sandals, his eyebrows bouncing, furry as the brush attachments that Sage’s mother tried in frustration to affix to her cherished Hoover vacuum cleaner, always calling Sage to do it. Sage often hid when her mother called her to do it. I put the brush on the Hoover sometimes, Sage told Kazem. Sometimes I hide. Hiding can be true and good, Kazem said. I hide in my truck sometimes, with all my secrets. That’s where I read my secret English books, better than any books you can buy. Bereem unja, come, I will show them to you ….

Now Dodge was ready, the aluminum bucket scooped full with the pool’s chlorinated water, the cooking spray and telescope positioned just so on the window’s rotting sill, but the feat of defecating at will into the bucket lowered him to a nadir near defeat. Of course the bucket had no seat. He knew that standing virtually upright for willed defecation with his eye attached as though surgically to the telescope would be contrary to every natural instinct and all the inculcations of civilization patrolling his seven-year-old body. Hopelessness swelled tidally as he attempted to coax into service the bucket’s thin wire handle as a sort of arched beam where, applying but a whisper of the pressure that accompanies freely uninhibited sitting, he might lightly balance his weight-subtracted buttocks upon a delicate decimal of support envisioned at the wire’s domed apex. After several attempts, the indented handle resembled a half-sketched Valentine heart, inverted.

For two days Dodge bickered with the quarrelsome grandfather of invention and solved the puzzle suddenly, exuberantly, by placing a chair with a wicker bottom over the bucket and with a pair of pruning shears hacking a hole through it. Hacking was the only word for it, done in the blind savage robotic daze of one repeatedly stabbing the mortal enemy responsible for slaughtering cherished family members. Finally, he sat on the chair platformed on stacked boards, the bowels he refused to empty during the long sphincter-clenched day at the Shulman Academy bursting with internal brick, the popo glistening so amply with canola spray that it resembled an insect embedded in a layered transparent gel, the telescope gouging so ardently at his bulging eye that when he removed the eyepiece he would appear to be wearing an overly zealous monocle. Did Sherlock Holmes wear a monocle? If so, then he, Dodge, must have looked like a midget Sherlock Holmes, sporting a monocle manufactured and marketed by a profit-driven Marquis de Sade. Even at the age of seven, he, Dodge, had been forced to acknowledge that life was a hideous straw bundle of Sisyphean circumstances capable of unraveling a thatch of anxiety over childhood’s carefree hut of innocent years and over all the years to follow.

… Listening, Sage remembered this: how much later that evening she swayed on the sidewalk, watching the truck that had been parked at the curb several houses down the block float away, as though Kazem were riding a witch’s broom spitting a spell of sooty retreat. Straw from the broom wisped her feet in frayed smoke and when she tried to walk, swept her into stumbling. A man was running down the middle of the street, chasing the slow-moving pickup that Kazem used to haul refuse from backyards and garages. The night pill had been pungent on her tongue and in her throat was pungent still, not at all the flavored quintessence she’d imagined, but metallic, the roof of her mouth tiled with the tangy taste of nickels. Her older brother had cars that went around and around on a track, and in just that way a wheeled toy of nausea played around a figure eight grooved in her stomach.

As she tried to remember where she lived she drifted past a neighbor’s porch, where a woman in a yellow housedress stood watching her with both palms ironing alarm into her cheeks, mouth round as a clock with teeth but no numbers or hands. Sage kept going and finally wavered up the walk that bisected the small front yard and the car-caravanned driveway, and then she was walking through her own screened front door. In the living room, the cat-eyed woman rose cumbrously seeing Sage, and pointed, and screamed. Sage followed the pointing arm and looked down at herself. Where were her flip-flops? Where were her white summer cut-offs and favorite Winnie The Pooh panties? Her privates were uncovered for all to see and her left foot pebbled with blood.

She was lifted in a breeze of babbling voices, she was down in the bathtub, she was up in her nightgown, she was down in her bed. Wailing women were in the bedroom with her, her mother was there, wailing loudest, clawing at her own hair until she’d ripped two fistfuls up by the roots. Doors slamming open and closed, crashing sounds in the house and men’s voices pitched in furious interrogation, saying over and over, chera, chera, chera and why why why, and then muffled screams, half-hearted outcries. Beyond her bedroom brimmed the grim polyphony of blows being struck in dull octaves of impact. Still holding the jagged hair torn from her head, her mother yelling na na NA NA NA swung from the room, followed by other running women, the cat-eyed woman told to stay behind with Sage. But when the woman heard the name the men were mangling with their throats KAZEM CHERA CHERA and understood what was happening, she hobbled to the bedroom door and heavily wedged her way through it.

Sage was now alone in the bedroom. She leaned over the side of the bed and sluggishly vomited and almost immediately felt better, though by the time she’d passed through the hallway on the sawed-off stilts attached to her waist beneath the nightgown and saw the legion-limbed commotion in the living room the sickness had returned.

She watched Kazem on the floor, folded in a flexure of self-protection, as her uncle Ali hurled a lamp down and the youth covered his head, arms thin and useless as data unsupported by fact. The men played their music for Kazem and it was a symphony of rage, while the women, belated conductors, tried to silence the song, lift it to an early end. Had the song continued, Kazem would have been lifted into the crescendo of the music’s final measures, but the police stomped in from the porch through the open screen door. Someone had called them, maybe the neighbors across the street or next door, or maybe one of the women in the house. The weeping young man, handcuffed, was gripped under the arms and dragged from the house, swollen face starched with blood, legs stretched straight as a crease in new slacks, heels rutting the lawn like moles …

… The reek rising from the bucket Dodge attributed to feces like ponies penned abnormally long in a corral of bowels, finally set free. The stench stirred by those pounding hooves, trapped as he wrangled the hours at The Shuman Academy, exploded through the gate with such overpowering force that he tottered on the chair and would have fallen, but at that moment Aimee was stair-stepping out of her uniform, arresting. Popo varnished in canola, legs clothed in culottes of oil extending almost to the knees, he began to chant devotedly, as though reciting from some grimorie of gothic invocations. It was the word that had cast its neon blink over his imagination’s smutty motel, the alpha and omega of all words, and he whispered at first and then, emboldened by the shed’s disinhibiting dimness, chanted with greater expressive range and feeling: poo-SAY, poo-SAY, poo-SAY. His preparations had spanned a period of weeks and he watched the maid in what he could only describe as frenzy of concentration, the act of masturbation that had been countervailed by every known obstacle imaginable to wayward child now drawing him to its mysterious threshold. Dodge had never had an erection and did not at that moment have an erection, but he was in a state of anticipatory excitement so heightened and sharply clarified that not even the full-fleshed sexual experiences of his later years would come close to what he was feeling that day.

… Listening, Sage remembered this: That night, her mother climbed in bed with Sage and cradled her until dawn. Flashes of what had happened in the truck threw synaptic sparks, drizzling holiday sparkler confetti in her head. Because she’d taken the night pill he’d promised would fill her with secrets, her memory was a geometry of triangles and rectangles overlapping in equations of tentative fact: the clutter on the floor in the truck’s cabin where she sat on the cigarette-singed seat with Kazem, the mob of empty Burger King bags and crushed Bud Lite cans and coffee-stained want-ads eager to lynch ankles. The disappointing English book she inspected closely in the truck’s cabin by the skittish glow of Kazem’s battery-failing flashlight, only to find that it was just an ordinary English book like the one her parents owned but rarely consulted, preferring instead to sidestep the snares of formal syntax and grammar for the expedient of words and phrases learned from TV programs. The curious loop of beads coiled at the base of the stick shift that Kazem said was a rosary, holier than the Quran. Kazem removing her shorts and underwear while her body wandered in a bardo between sleeping and waking, Kazem staring at her for a long time as she lay stretched out on the tobacco-reeking seat, Kazem, Kazem, Kazem. Anaconda hands beginning at her ankles and sliding up the calves to her knobby knees, viper hands taking over at her knees and slithering to her hips, but suddenly stopping there.

I save the best touches for last, he said, and he was unbuttoning his shirt, muttering vile words in Farsi and English, then whispering, subvocal. She remembered that he’d opened his shirt like the American Eagle she’d studied in school with its widespread wings, then the whole truck seemed to quake and lean. Above the door with its handle chopped into the crown of her head, the window became a grand mal seizure of glass in its frame, then the door flew open and she slid, or if pulled, was pulled from seat to curb. A man shouting, trying to get in the truck with Kazem, Kazem kicking with his feet at him, the truck pulling away with its open door swinging, the man running after the truck. The door swung on a gallows, the door fell off in the street with the clatter of bones. When she stood, a cuspid of glass embedded in her knee dripped polleny bright beads on her foot.

The next day the police had a story to tell.

Kazem was not Kazem – his legal name was George T. Smith.

A nineteen-year-old man with no prior criminal record but with a medical history of mental instability dating from early adolescence, born in Newark, New Jersey, George T. Smith had been married for three years to an Iranian woman, Ferdows Yazdi, but not one trace of Iranian blood flowed through his veins. In fact, he had been disowned by his father, a devout Roman Catholic, for marrying a woman “outside the white American race.”

George T. Smith and his wife had left Newark, a city that he felt was a factory for provincialism, manufacturing a population of clones based on the prototype of his father. They moved to Venice, California, where they’d lived ordinary lives in a city whose ethic diversity would cause Newark’s eyebrows, perpetually raised at the sight of the couple, to drop in shame. The episodes of depression and the darker manifestations of mental instability had disappeared, but resurfaced again with a vengeance when his wife died in a head-on collision on a particularly notorious stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway one fog-fettered Wednesday night. Already enamored of Iranian culture, after his wife’s death he plunged into it headlong, in an immersion so total that he was compelled to pack all the clothes and official records documenting the existence of George T. Smith in three pieces of Samsonite luggage, douse them in lighter fluid, strike a match, and watch them burn in the kitchen of the bungalow he and Ferdows had leased.

He waved goodbye to George T. Smith. It was a relief, he’d explained to the police, the police explaining to Sage’s mother and father, because George T. Smith had never truly existed in the first place. George T. Smith, with all his American-as-apple-pie alienation and phobias and fears! He called himself Kazem Jamalzadeh because that was who he really was, or that was who he should have been all along: Kazem Jamalzadeh, from Teheran.

So of course he was fluent in Farsi. His English was sometimes awkward, but English was a difficult language to learn well and he was always working on it. He worked on it inside the truck, where he lived and ate and slept, traveling nomadically from Venice to Santa Monica, from Linwood to Hawthorne, from Long Beach to Malibu, from Alhambra to Culver City – wherever Southern California’s spaghetti of freeways spilled its asphalt sauce, wherever he could find work. From Burbank to Eagle Rock to Glendale to Pasadena, where he’d met Sage’s cat-eyed woman, a legitimate great-aunt on Sage’s mother’s side, who felt sorry for Kazem Jamalzadeh, newly arrived in America and without documentation of any kind, his family still in Iran, Ferdows waiting for him to send a plane ticket, poor Kazem living in his pickup truck.

The cat-eyed woman, who had no children of her own, saw Kazem Jamalzadeh as the son she’d never had, introduced him to her relatives and drew him into her wide circle of friends. That was why Kazem Jamalzadeh had been invited to celebrate Noruz in the jammed rooms of Sage’s parents’ house. That was why they’d opened their doors to him.

Sage’s mother came to her bedroom every night and quietly climbed in her bed. Where her head lay on her mother’s breast, she heard the heart put its firm heel down time and time again, walking on. No one told her what happened to the young man, but during those nights she was often confronted by George T. Smith’s face, not swollen and starched with blood, but with the eyebrows bouncing when he laughed.

Then after a week passed, she understood that if she let the unbidden face go, it would no longer be obligated to pay her the nightly visit and, at the same time, as her mother pulled back the sheet to slide in with Sage, she told her mother that she would sleep alone. When her mother hesitated, Sage said, it’s okay, I have your heart in my ear, and reached over to the bedside table, and turned out the light herself. And the darkness rushed to rinse her eyes.

Of course the adult Sage knew that the memory was geometry of triangles and rectangles overlapping in equations of tentative fact – it was possible that there were holes she’d filled with merciful approximations. It might have happened the way she recounted it, or it might not have happened that way. So she allowed the little girl to flip a mental coin but didn’t call it, watched it twirl off the thumb and land tails. Only after seeing what it was did they both call it, adult and child united – tails – and so it was chosen: it was not an approximation, it was not a tentative fact. It happened, but exactly the way she’d decided it happened.

Dodge was scarred, permanently, profoundly and irrevocably, by what happened next.

Circumstances sighed and caved in, like a conflicted serial killer embracing eventuality.

Dodge watched, reconciled to reek. In her underwear Aimee sauntered to the bathroom, hips ambitious, creating challenges her feet failed to find on an unrolling floor. She was teaching him that certain women were surely voyeurs, watching themselves, willful schizophrenics splitting performer and audience down the middle, conscious of themselves as solitary erotic beings in the full swing of moment to moment, and Aimee was one of those women, spectator of her own sensuality, needing no eyes but her own.

A thought came to him then, a sad and precocious apercu: she was doing something not within the capacity of a man to do. The room was small not because of architectural limitations, but because it forsook the spaciousness that would pull it farther from her orbit. Somehow he knew that there was a sofa that sighed lengthwise into a bed, and end tables, lamps, throw rugs, and commercially produced art weeping maudlin sentiment on the walls. Simply somehow – not because he looked at it. The telescope was trained like a Doberman to respond only to the leash of Aimee’s sultry shape. She filled the lens, pink meat in the Doberman’s teeth, or as air supplies starved lungs.

His pleasure was doubled when he recalled how there were two Aimees. He sometimes saw the public one after he returned from the harrowing Shulman Academy, saw her in the dining room doing primly this or that. If he stood nearby, she might tap an absent-minded palm on his head, fingers making merry muss, and ask, “Thaddeus, are you my good boy or my bad one?” In that way he learned what amused her, answering “bad,” watching her eyes light up, a devil with a lancing lantern loomed behind them – the hint hewn from the wood of her public primness that a second more essential Aimee existed, the one with self-seeing eyes alone in a private room that wooed her, her suitor of unseeing walls.

Actually his pleasure was tripled, because it occurred to him that Aimee must have been a child once too, Dodge’s own age. Maybe she had watched, playing a neighborhood game of hide and seek, some tousled boy concealed behind a tree whom the call of nature had visited, the boy, reluctant to interrupt the game and heed nature’s call in the proper manner prescribed by convention, boldly dropping his pants right where he stood for number one, while Aimee had observed from behind a nearby bush, seen the popo exposed and producing the golden string to which the boy was tethered and floated above, a leaking balloon.

And if so, she might have felt what Dodge felt now, the needle of illicit incomparable nonlocalized prepubescent pleasure stitching scalp and hemming skin. In an erotic swoon he dared to imagine that third seven-year-old Aimee spying on the lad, her buttocks shivering in instinctual receptive readiness, a reptilian eye vertically slitted, as though staring down through the toilet seat’s porthole at the prey of up-swimming sperms. And actually, his pleasure was quadrupled, there were four Aimee’s, because … but no matter, no matter.

In the shed, serendipity rewarded Dodge for his tenacity, awarded him its golden parcel. She disappeared into the bathroom and he expected her to emerge into the sweet leisure of her evening in the blue terrycloth robe she always wore after she’d rid herself of the uniform. Instead, she came out in a raiment of skin with the robe tossed without a care over her shoulder.

She was beautiful (thankfully he wouldn’t know until years later that she was beautiful in a dime-a-dozen sort of way). She went to the sofa and sat after turning on the television, splayed her legs to take an evening’s ease. Dodge stretched elastic eye like a tube within a tube to move it flush against the sacred lens. Astounded by what he saw and shuddering like an insect beneath leather’s sole-shaped shadow, he hurriedly lifted the telescope from the tripod, the screws and latches already loosened, and without removing his eye began to pace fro and to on the unsteady podium of planks. He waited for the tingling signal that would announce urination, the rite of masturbation that had been fraught with obstacles finally nearing the pinnacle of completion.

And at that moment, at that intersection of ringing benefic bells, Jack Dodge appeared on the cobbled path to Aimee’s quarters, spliced avante garde into the scene like a rogue editor’s cut, fingers sailoring his beard, meditatively navigating, perhaps, early currents of the novel that lapped along chin’s coastline and would ferry him to fame. In the middle of the path he paused, glancing over both shoulders though the shed was the only structure standing on that part of the property, then stepped off the path and hunched to penetrate a row of hedges, his head appearing above and behind them, so that it seemed to move along without a body atop a poltergeist belt of foliage.

Why the army of gardeners had left the area untended, the hedges unshaped and rampant, the grass raising antlers of horny growth from the earth, weeds and wildflowers in a dry froth, buds from lilac trees punching bruises of purpling pink everywhere, only made sense to young Dodge much later: they must have been instructed by his father.

The sun had dropped its yellow tablet into the dissolving dusk and Dodge was forced to swallow the sky’s murk, his only hope now the single long lighted lozenge of living room window. He felt the popo itself curling inward, retreating more deeply into its cold chasm of canola, as though the popo had been erect, and of course it hadn’t, it was simply that the vending machine of frustration he’d already fed all his coins to was cheating him of his paid-for prize.

Helplessly he watched Jack Dodge hop across the three feet of greenless space separating the place where the hedges came to an end and the house began, throwing himself silently against the wall beneath the window. How could Dodge not have seen the stool he’d been carrying in his hand on the path? Well, there was no doubt Jack Dodge had a stool – yes, a metal praying mantis of step-laddered aluminum – and unfolding its limbs he wedged them well into the earth. Still hunched, his father continued to stroke his beard, climbed the stepladder, slowly lifting his head.

Through the telescope Dodge now saw the back of his father’s lonely skull, superimposed and massive between Aimee’s wishboned legs, supplanting the dainty russet saddle that Dodge had earlier mounted with his riding eye, the father’s geyser of hair in its idiotic up-spray obscuring even the maid’s perfect petite breasts – Jugs, Ricky had called them – the Jugs, then, invisible but cruelly traced in a feeble stencil of memory that mocked the boy with the vagueness of what it wasn’t.

When Aimee would rise from the sofa, move to the small kitchen, Jack Dodge would lean in perilous stretch from right to left, refining the angle he commanded, fine-tuning it, usurping what the telescope attempted to take in – and so it went as the minutes moaned on, Aimee walking to the closet, to the bathroom, the filling head fused to her faintest flick.

Furthermore, in a final cataclysmic stroke of irony, the boy saw his father, as the evening dropped tie-dyed textures over the estate’s broad chest, remove a pair of opera glasses from his pocket, raise them to his eyes. Unable to dam the growing pressure of urination, Dodge whirled to face the bucket’s precipice and with a cry of anguish splashed down into the chlorinated abyss.

                                           +++

“So,” Sage said, and for a moment she’d forgotten where they were – on the UW campus, a Thursday after-class evening in the student lounge, the month of May outside flinging her floral-patterned lingerie on the streets. They were sitting on chairs glossed in colors not found in nature, his-and-hers radioactive red and green, oversized furniture purchased from a discount warehouse for engulfment. The chairs were huge as though calculated to keep the students in their place, keep them overwhelmed, make them feel small.

Dodge said with a hint of taa-daa in his voice, “My fable of disenchantment. All that energy, all that effort, all that expectation and in the end it came to nothing.”

“So that was the end of it?”

Dodge sucked something pink and slushy through a straw in a cup wide as a Styrofoam epidemic, a sleet of refreshment cooling a throat he treated like fevered street. “Ended? Are you kidding? Nothing ever just ends with me. It’s more like, if I begin it, it just keeps going and doesn’t end, unless it’s replaced by something else.”

“Sure. That’s the usual pattern for the obsessive compulsive, isn’t it? By the way, how’s that working out for you?”

“Can I help it? No, I cannot help it. I could fight it, but why bother? It’s my nature.”

“Okay. So there’s seven-year-old Dodge, precocious but tragically misguided it sounds like to me, regarding the whole mechanics of the masturbation odyssey thing.”

“A young Ulysses of misguided masturbation,” Dodge embellished, and he stared at her. It would be impossible to decipher her coded eyes. A universe lived there, DNA, string theory, Big Bang, cosmic indifference lifting its spoon for a moment to loop an alphabet of worlds awake in primeval soup, or an Olympian interest so tapered and keen that worlds were returned to vapor and steam. He would be further fascinated because her words were often at odds with her eyes, one thing said and another seen.

For example, her reply: “The exalted quest theme of Western literature brought to its knees.”

With this statement, did she approve or disapprove? Her tone was cool but friendly, the eyes impossible to bend into rendition.

The chairs were grouped in little galaxies, in satellites of two, with a low table in the middle and what appeared to be a slice from a sectional sofa across from the chairs, an arrangement repeated in clusters across the floor. An empty conference room where poets gave public readings had its doors thrown open like abandoned insight at one end, the other end was a high windowed wall with a stiff tall tilt of manila envelopes for curtains. Bulletin boards stuck out their tongues, flyers advertising local bands, mirroring the mockery on the photographed faces. On the sofa slice across from Dodge and Sage lounged a generic boy and girl, mollusked around each other and their backpacks. The couple monopolized the table with their books. They were attempting to have a discussion of Kant. The boy said, “The categorical imperative.” The girl stopped chewing gum and stared at him.

Students slouched through the place like career posters promoting PhD’s in neglected posture.

An Asian youth in a motorized wheelchair flashed by, girlfriend a ragdoll bolted to his lap, and shouted to Dodge, “I’m still waiting for you to hook me up with that interview with your dad for the rag that passes for a university newspaper.” As it rounded the corner, the chair leaned like a high-styling pimp, prostituting traction for all it was worth.

Sage thought that an observer might have concluded that there were very few African American students at the university, but that was not the case. The African-American students had established a Black student union in another campus building. Other buildings housed student unions for other ethnicities as well, though these ethnic students spilled over, in numbers greater than those evidenced by African American students, into the unnamed student union where she and Dodge sat.

There was no Iranian student union, however. Fleetingly she considered approaching the administration and making a suggestion, but decided that the Iranian students she knew might not be inclined to congregate there. She would be the only one there, she thought amusedly, fraternizing with herself.

“That night I snuck in the house and flushed the bucket down the toilet. Two seconds after I did it I almost had a heart attack.”

“Why?”

“Because I remembered all of a sudden that my father was the last thing I’d seen. I had this horrible vision of my dad sitting on the toilet and the sperm swimming up through the pipes and attaching to him.”

“Bizarre, but logical I guess,” Sage allowed.

“The whole thing was turning into this like nightmare Pandora’s box of masturbation, which wasn’t even real masturbation, that’s the supreme irony. The next day I tried it again.”

The Kantian couple, suctioned lazily to each other, amorous unshelled snails in need of post-coital Mollusk brand cigarettes, uncoiled to listen.

“I did the whole thing at school again, not going to the bathroom, I did the prep work in the shed, and sure enough the bastard came down the path with the step ladder. There I was, sitting on the homemade toilet, with my dick all dripping in canola oil, staring through the telescope at the back of my dad’s head while he thoroughly scoped Aimee – who was completely naked again, by the way,” Dodge spittingly said, with great bitterness. “But guess what? He added a new dimension to the whole sorry saga. Guess.”

Sage just stared at him, as though she were sitting on the sofa with the couple.

“Now he was looking through his little opera glasses, and he had his own dick out, flapping it with one hand into an erection.”

Sage’s elegant left eyebrow detached from forehead, floating up.

The couple had stricken expressions on their faces.

“With or without canola oil?” Sage asked with a look that was a line on a page.

“Go ahead and laugh, but it was total devastation for me.

Like a mandolin strummed underwater, Sage said tonelessly, “Do you see me laughing?”

“This went on for a fucking week. He was there every day with the O-specs, taking care of business.”

The Kantian boy could no longer restrain himself. “This was your father?”

“Yep.”

The boy shook his head. “And I thought my old man’s bottom drawer full of porno mags under the socks was a walk on the wild side.”

The girl shook her head, too.

Sage shook her head, but who knew what it meant?

“What was the deal with the canola oil?” the boy asked.

“You missed that part of the story,” Sage said definitively, “and there will be no recap, at this particular juncture.”

The couple gathered their things to leave. “You should write that,” the boy suggested. “That would make one depraved story.”

Dodge opened his arms, nodded as though something had been proven, eyes pinning his medal of self-satisfied vindication on Sage.

After the couple left, Dodge went on, “Then one day he didn’t appear on the path. I thought maybe I had one last chance to make it all good. I looked through the telescope but her place was dark. No Aimee. I found out my mom had let her go, fired her for some bogus shit like one of her diamonds being missing or something. You know what I think? My mom had probably been lurking around somewhere that whole time, watching him.”

“You mom watching your dad watch the maid while you watched your dad, both you and your dad unaware of the watching mom, and nobody watching you while you watched.”

Thoughtfully Dodge said, “Nobody except God.”

What would Dodge know about God? God was not a He or a She or an It or a Cosmic Force, was not Being or non-Being, was not in time or beyond it, was not Immanent or Wholly Other. Whatever had been written or whispered or thought about God wasn’t God, either. Sage knew about God, but she wasn’t about to waste it on Dodge.

                                           +++

No, listening to Dodge wasn’t easy. Words fell with the unabating precision of Chinese water torture, drumming the skull to dumb gristle. Bone fragment flaked off Sage’s shrinking head beneath each droplet’s blunt chisel. Dodge had passed in his life through obsessive stages like a sneeze through cheap knock-off Kleenex and he spoke of them all. He sprayed adrenergic saliva at times when he talked, so fast did he talk – sprayed sudsy speech.

And in a way that was almost imperceptible, the disorderly apartment began to fill with people, as a petri dish builds bacteria. Unmutual friends at first showed up on the weekends, invited by Dodge, eager for more audience than a single spectating Sage could offer. Then they appeared during the week, wandered in through the door he left open like a subconscious on promiscuous hinges. Biding her time, she was patient but the scales were tipping toward equilibrium, toward the time her debt would be paid in full. Surely he sensed it, stretched The Dodge Chronicles in leisurely labyrinths when straight bridges between A and B would have sufficed, extending the more merciful span.

He spoke of how he became convinced, at the age of nine, that he was adopted, scouring photo albums for hours, amalgamating with a scissors, snipping the stares and glares from faces, his so-called mother and father’s, and puzzling them together to see if the coercion would yield something that resembled his own face. Resemblance was a cruel evasion and he began to grill relatives when they visited for facts, dates, places, times, maddeningly alert to inconsistencies. Finally he confronted his mother, demanding to know the truth. “Your father, Jack Dodge, is the only bastard in this house,” was the answer, and that made sense to him, yes, that did in fact make sense.

Then he was a little older. Dodge’s house was still as empty and vibrant with futility as an amputee with no arms looking at a porno video and attempting masturbation – Sage was more than a little dismayed at the resurgence of the masturbation theme, even as a passing image – and to dilute the loneliness, Dodge invented an imaginary friend called Llik, and for a time the solitude that parched his head was halved like a sweet fluid pear.

Llik listened, Llik frolicked with Dodge through the doomed shed, through outbuildings on the grounds, stole money with him from his mother’s purse or his father’s wallet, but then something happened, something strange. Llik turned shrewd and malefic. Llik whispered to Dodge, insisting that Llik was the real one and Dodge the imaginary playmate. And so Dodge became a powerless figment of Llik’s fetid imagination. Llik was a degenerate, a monster, forcing Dodge to remove his father’s prized tropical fish from their tank in the study, to “free the fish’s soul.” Llik had eyes that glowed, a serrated jack-o-lantern smile. At school, Llik ordered Dodge to follow an older girl to the bathroom and into a stall, and the girl removed her underwear and Llik guided Dodge’s hand, as she sat on the toilet with the top down, to the popo-less place between her legs, the girl sighing and moaning, and suddenly what he had tried in his frenzy to see when Aimee had sat on the sofa was a junction of moist neritic terror emanating heat, like hell relocated to the sizzling planet Venus. Llik laughed evilly as Dodge ran from the stall, bursting into the hall at the very moment when Mr. Aderman, the principal, was passing with the notebook in which he recorded the names of “problem” children, then called their parents in the evening at the worst possible time, when they were sitting down to dinner, relieved that they had managed to somehow crawl through another day.

They might have been, the 6 or7 students stretched on the floor or perched or on what passed for furniture in the apartment, gathered around a campfire with milk and cookies. Sage leaned in the doorway to the kitchen, arms crossed, learning, listening.

“Did you know at the time that Llik was kill spelled backwards?” A graduate student asked. He had raised his hand, as though in class. He had teeth the top lip fled from, ears that leapt from his head like a melancholic taking flight off the Golden Gate Bridge.

For a moment Dodge didn’t reply. Then he said with a disappointed sigh, as though it was the most logical comment in the world – and maybe it was – “Get out, Jess. It’s Jess, right? Well, Jess, just get the fuck out, right now. Come back when you’re ready to listen.”

Sitting next to Dodge on the gummy marshmallow of the sofa, penned inside a lean and feral look, a young woman strangely eyed named Joan, another graduate student, threw a paperback book winged open on her lap at Jess as he rushed for the door. The book, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, bounced off Jess’s suicidal right ear, leaving a scratch on the lobe and two dangling beads, a colon of blood, an earring of ruby punctuation. “What kind of stupid shittish question was that?” she cried.

When Jess was gone Dodge resumed, calm as a flame-free candle. He was where? Llik. But it was apparent that his heart was no longer in it, and he wrapped it up quickly, saying simply that Llik disappeared, that Llik was a transient phenomena, returning as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared to the misted domicile that had been his apparent home.

Dodge with much greater enthusiasm tumbled into another phase he called The Son In Search Of The Fucked Up Father’s Approval. His audience would relate to this woeful topic: they all were the sons and daughters of men daily whittled by disillusionment, labeled bastards by mothers who themselves were labeled bitches by their children, and who, if for no other reason than that they forked over mortgaged-leveraged cash for tuition, were entitled to the thankless acknowledgement conferred by the word father. Not every child was gifted scholastically, and Dodge admitted he was one of those. His college grades were for the most part abysmal, but he harbored a wealth of entrepreneurial talents.

Dodge brokered a pool of writers who produced term papers to feed the needs of students waging remedial struggles with the written word, charging $100 a paper, paying the writers by the hour and taking the larger percentage, an enterprise he christened Students Write Away.

He brokered lonely flesh, offering graphic arts students the “opportunity” to build their portfolios by contributing artwork for a website he cobbled together and called Students Surviving Saturday Night, compiling a database of names and helming an Internet dating service, charging a sizable match-making fee.

He brokered a housesitting service, a baby-sitting service, a talent agency that booked gigs for bands at bars, weddings, bar mitzvahs. No overhead, low overhead, doing none of the work yourself – that was the key. Paying no fucking Wisconsin state or U.S. federal taxes – that was the key. Money poured in, crisp nectar, a mayhem of under-the-radar cash. A sophomore, a junior – abysmal grades were no obstacle, he would names no names, but the pathetic untenured lower echelon grade-givers were not above accepting Dodge’s “gratuities and gifts” – a sophomore, a junior with $80,000 in cash, eager for his father’s approval, forced to make an “appointment” to see the man, approaching his father one afternoon with a gangster’s satchel. His father agreed to meet Dodge, not in his writing sanctuary, not in the dining room, not in the study or library, but in the hall where they sometimes, still, passed each other.

Jack Dodge, the now-famous author, agelessly older, wearing the same construction paper pants and soiled white tie. “What is the meaning of this, sir?” his father asked. The wall he clung to seemed to cling back protectively, like an ideal broad and tall featureless father. Dodge dropped to his knees with the satchel as though offering homage. He opened the lid: a black box bricked with money, mortared with rubber bands. “I know I’m not a good student,” Dodge said, or said something like it. “But I know how to make money. I started businesses, I made this myself.” His father asked, “Could this be why the stories you show me are not very good? It very well could be,” and slid away flatly against the wall with startling velocity into vanished.

“What did you do?” Joan asked. She scratched a populous Woodstock of rash on her left arm.

“After he left, I struck a match and burned the money, right there in the hall.”

Joan clapped girlishly, bounced up and down on the sofa.

“Hell, you can always make more money,” he reasoned.

Joan squirmed more deeply into the coils and springs of her excitement, bounced higher, scratched harder, clapped louder.

Later that same night, or it might have been another night, it really didn’t matter, since Dodge tongued time when he spoke as though it were an envelop and sealed everything inside it, including day and night, he explained that after the incident in the hallway he set another fire, this time pouring a gasoline of words on paper and scratching with his pen until sparks rose to pyramid a pyre.

He wrote as never before, dungeoned in concentration, his soul swinging above like a bare bulb on a wire, throwing down an interrogator’s harsh heedless light, the shadow of his hunched self fluxing monstrous on the page. Both prisoner and tormentor, examiner and the examined, he broke himself down and put the pieces back together, determined to prove his worth. In an eerie unfolding of Yungian synchronicity, or fate laying down its intersection for unsure feet, the university had announced its annual fiction writing contest, the Mae E. Gales Literary Award, open to students from the colleges in Madison or Milwaukee, the duel pistons in University of Wisconsin’s statewide scholastic engine.

But problem #1 – his father was one of the judges on a panel of three. He knew he would be disqualified for that reason. So Dodge submitted the story under an assumed name – or more accurately, crawled into the husk of an identity already firmly implanted in a ready-made existence.

Joan Weller, the very Joan here tonight in the flesh – Joan bowed and bounced gymnastically as she sat, a cheerleader with upper torso minatoured to sofa – Joan Weller, valiant in the face of fraud and expulsion, offered up her identity for Dodge’s cause. The parameters of true friendship had no limits, Joan had proven that.

But problem #2: after all the bare-bulbed swinging of his soul, after the black sweat of ink and the nightless labor, after the gauze of subterfuge so subtly wound around the judge’s eyes in all the yardage of his yearning, and after his father’s wounding words echoing like the halls of the house, the award that Dodge had seen himself accepting was given to another. The $500, the winner’s interview published in The Milwaukee Sentinel, the story published in the university’s quarterly journal, The Dream City Review – fame’s quartered hour with its scant limelight fell at the feet of a student whom Dodge vaguely remembered seeing in one of his creative writing classes, a student named Peace Datcher.

Who in the hell would name a baby Peace? Had they meant Piece, as in incomplete, and misspelled it? Tall and unassuming, quick to smile but otherwise silent, sitting in the back of the class, with a hundred nervous tics all involving his dreadlocks – could that be the usurper? Dodge read the winning story, called Darkside Soliloquies, a piece that seemed to be about … some urban drama of some kind, was that what it was about? It wasn’t bad, but it was nested in images, and the slight storyline slipped and slid, feverish and overwrought.

“I read it too. It was a piece of crap,” Joan declared.

“My father,” Dodge said slowly, “said it was unfocused, but he voted for it anyway.”

Face unpleasant as insomnia, Joan said, “Well writing a 1900-page novel, he would definitely be one to recognize unfocused. But if he felt that way, why’d he vote for it?”

“The style nevertheless had music in it, he said.”

“If you want music, there’s a thing something called a symphony you can listen to? Duh.”

Sage heard something in Dodge’s voice and for that reason intended to read it, but never found the time. She would meet the tic-laden writer months later, on a Greyhound Bus, but even then she wouldn’t remember. She would eventually remember, but not until much later.

Every day people drifted out of the apartment through the door that was never closed, changing shifts with the same people, differently named and faced, who freely drifted in again.

Every faucet in the apartment when turned squeaked like sneakers on a wet gymnasium floor.

Dodge’s cell phone rang constantly, built a tenement of tinnitus in Sage’s ears.

She stood by the side of the road that ran through the living room with a hitchhiker’s thumb extended while time passed her by.

One afternoon Sage returned to the apartment from her zoology class and walked in through the open door, saw Dodge with Joan on the living room floor, their bodies moled beneath the mound of the malodorous quilt. Both heads popped out and stayed, motionless as Pompeii. Joan, strangely eyed, said nothing.

Dodge told Sage, “I really wish there were two yous, two Sage’s. One for the good Dodge and one for the bad one. One for me now, and one that would be here for me when you’re gone.”

Sage waited. For all these months the air from his lungs blowing through her head had been the sound of wind’s rush and skim, a planchette skating over the ouija board of bad weather that followed Dodge wherever he went, and still she’d felt obligated to listen. But at that moment, it seemed that Dodge had nothing more to say. His words had taken wing, leaving an empty eggless nest. This was the opportunity she’d been waiting for and she seized it like breaking a neck. She brisked to the bedroom and came out holding a Hefty Garbage bag, a green squirrel of polyethylene, cheeks acorned with her belongings.

“I only see one Dodge,” she answered, “the one under the quilt. And just for the record, I don’t wish anything.”

Joan whitened, or already whitened, blued, guilty as spilled skim milk. Dodge opened his mouth but before he could speak, she stuffed it with the gag of her goodbye – khodahafez – and walked out through door, finally closing it.

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