Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Oracle of Delphi



I. The coming of the coyotes.

The winter started slowly but then came on stronger and settled in, and it wasn't long before the coyotes living in the woods behind the new subdivision began to grow hungrier and leaner and braver and more desperate with each passing day. It was only a matter of time before the wild animals made themselves known.

And so it was late one evening, while driving back from the movies (the latest science-fiction epic that Melissa had insisted on going to) on a night that was dark and cold, the Builders first saw the coyotes. Don was the first to see them, actually--only one coyote--in a flash of untamed legs and mouth and fur and tail and reflected orange eyes appearing out of the shadows, darting out of the cone of light from the front of the black Lexus SUV and loping off into a grove of bare trees that lined the unspoiled section of woods behind the neighborhood where he and Melissa had moved only a few short weeks ago.

"Did you see that?" Don asked his wife. He tapped on the brakes lightly, and a sudden red glow lit up the darkness behind them. Melissa hadn't seen the coyote. Her mind had been adrift, as it was so often these days, in images and thoughts of other worlds and other galaxies and other life far away from her own life here on earth.

"What?" she asked, snapping back from her revery. The images and the memories of the movie receded momentarily. She had been looking out the passenger window--staring quietly up at the frigid, black, winter night sky, lost in her thoughts--when she heard her husband's strange voice.

"That dog. Or whatever it was," Don said. "I don't think it was a dog..."

"What? What are you talking about? A dog?"

"Out in front of us." He slowed their Lexus even more, bringing it to a stop and pulling over to the side of the street. There were no other car lights coming toward them or coming up from behind. Only the amber glow of their headlights shown into the distance and made shadows of the bare trees off to the right of the road, beyond a snowy undeveloped lot edged by the forest. "It looked like a dog," he said. "But it wasn't a dog. That was a coyote, I'll bet."

"A coyote? Where?" Melissa was sitting up straighter now. He had gotten her attention. She was fully awake now, fully alert. Her mind was with him. If he had wanted her back from whatever dreamy world she had escaped to in her imagination then he had succeeded. She was scared now and paying attention. She narrowed her eyes and peered into the darkness ahead of them, off into the distance of trees, trying to make sense of what was there and to maybe catch a glimpse of whatever it was Don had thought he'd seen in the dark. "You saw a coyote? Out here? So close to our house?"

"I think so," he said quietly.

"I didn't think there were coyotes out here," she said. She hoped that Don was wrong and that somehow she was right. Surely there were no wild animals like coyotes living so close to where they had only so recently moved? She and Don hadn't even been in their new house a full month yet. They hadn't even had a chance to fully settle in. Such a thing as coyotes in the wooded expanse behind their neighborhood wasn't possible, was it? Coyotes lived in the wild, didn't they, not in the middle of the suburbs? (She had to admit to herself, of course, that she didn't even know what a coyote looked like, really, and knew she wouldn't be able to recognize one if it appeared to her in the dark distance. But surely Don wouldn't either, she was almost sure of it. Surely he was mistaken.)

"Well, Lissa, obviously there are coyotes living out there in the trees around the lake," he said matter-of-factly. "I just saw one."

"What? Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure..."

"You're sure or you're pretty sure?" she asked him.

He sighed. "Honey, I just saw a coyote. Okay? And where there is one, there are bound to be others."

She looked out the front window, trying desperately to see what Don had seen. But whatever it had been--a coyote, or dog, or deer, or whatever--it was gone. She looked over at her husband and wondered how he had suddenly become such an expert on wildlife.

"How do you know it was a coyote?" she asked. "Maybe it was a dog. They look like dogs, don't they? Or maybe it was a deer? A baby one, separated from its mother?"

"It was a coyote," he said, marking the end of the discussion with the tone of his voice. "It wasn't a dog or a deer. I just saw a coyote run into the trees. That means we have coyotes out there..."

"Well, what do they want?"

He looked over at her. "What do they want?" he said back to her.

She sighed. As much as he had tried (and she was sure Don hadn't tried very hard to mask the sarcasm in his voice), Melissa knew, once again, that her husband was judging her to be not only silly but also dreamy and foolish, like a young girl.

"Never mind," she said.

"What?" he asked her.

"Nothing."

"No, what is it?" he said.

She sighed again. "Well, I mean what are they doing out there? The coyotes, out in the woods...so close to where we live? What do they want? What are they doing?"

Don looked across the darkened front seat at his wife. The glow of the dashboard cast shadows under his tired eyes that made him look almost sinister and fearful. "They want food," he said. "They're wild animals. It's winter. And they're starving."

II. Learning different ways to get to the same place.

Their new home rested on a 3-acre lot at the end of a partially developed cul-de-sac. The grandiose two-story brick--with a 2.5-car garage--was the only house at the end of the lane. At least so far, anyway. On either side of Creston Ct., running the length of both sides of the street, there were only 4 other homes besides the Builders' (respectively, Bill and Brenda Patterson's house, Joseph and Ellena McElivy's, Taylor and Heather Payton's, and John and Louise Sandler's), all of them built with the same solid, impressive, and impassive two-story brick fronts with wooden decks and swimming pools and gazebo/hot tubs in the rolling backyards.

It was a nice neighborhood. Quiet, roomy, and safe. It was a good neighborhood in which to raise children, even though, ironically, no one on Creston Ct. had any children. For now, there were none of those wooden swingset-slide playsets erected in anyone's backyard. There were no sandboxes. No sounds of high-pitched squeals of laughter or playful screaming echoing up and down the street, while kids rode their bicycles or played in the yard or rounded up a game of touch football or tag.

Along the street--in the empty lots without houses--the ground sat awaiting purchase, rusted realty signs poked into the frozen earth to advertise availability. But even if the signs could be pulled free of the ice-packed ground, there weren't any buyers during this time of year. And especially not with the housing market tumbling the way it had over the past two years. For now, anyway, Creston Ct. sat as a scar on the ground--bulldozed, leveled, and paved--at the edge of Creston Woods. Like an accusation, the undeveloped strip of asphalt winding to the Builders' lone front door at the end of its rounded cul-do-sac lay as a sad reminder of better times and unfulfilled promise.

"You know what I've been thinking?" Melissa asked Don one night as they were in bed. Both of them had just turned out the bedside lights after reading--Don's laptop snapped closed on the floor below him and Melissa's latest science fiction novel from her favorite author laying by her lamp and the digital alarm clock, a bookmark propped in the middle of its pages.

"What's that?" Don mumbled, already half asleep.

Melissa lay in the quiet of the dark, staring up at the blackness until her eyes adjusted, listening to her husband's breathing grow deeper and louder and steadier with each breath. "We should both take turns driving different routes back home when we're out and about during the day," she said. "You know, one day you take one route to work and another route back. And I would do the same when I'm running errands like I do. That would be fun, don't you think?"

Don was quiet a moment before answering, pulling himself up from wells of sleep, and then sighed. "What would be the point of that?"

"I don't know. I just think it would be fun. Don't you think it would be fun?"

"I think sleep would be fun right now."

"Oh. Okay..." She paused. "It's just...I was just wondering which way you usually take to get home," Melissa said quietly. "I was just curious, that's all. About which route you take in the mornings and in the evenings on the drive home."

He stirred and mumbled. "Huh? What? Which way I do what?"

"Driving," she said again. "I just wondered which way you go when you drive to work."

"I don't know," he said. He was beginning to sound irritated. "I don't think about it, Melissa. I just go the main way, I suppose. The only way I know to go. Why?"

"I was just curious," she said. "That's all. I just think moving into a new house...there's so many new things to discover. You know?" He didn't answer her. "Like the neighborhood, and the roads to and from--which one is faster, which road is nicer, and which one you end up preferring to drive."

"Yeah, well...I don't know," he said finally. "I hadn't thought about it."

"I'm almost afraid to drive around here," she said. "I'm afraid I'll get lost or something."

"I'll buy you one of those GPS systems," Don said. It was obvious with the way he said it that he intended this to be the final word in the conversation. He would get her a GPS device to carry with her in her car, and that would be the end of her worries.

"A what?" she asked.

He sighed. "One of those electronic satellite devices," he told her. "It's mobile, for your car, and it tracks you. All you have to do is type in your destination, and it shows you how to get there."

"Oh yeah," she said, "I think that's what Jennifer had. I saw her using it one time when we went shopping downtown. We were trying to avoid construction and find the quickest way to get to the American Girl store. I didn't know, and neither did she..."

"Mm-hmm," Don said. He was fading. He was no longer a part of the conversation. He was asleep, just responding automatically at this point. She was alone and talking to herself.

She smiled anyway in the dark, her hand cupped underneath her head. A tear began to leak from the corner of her eye, running down her cheek, across her hand, and onto her pillow. "That would be nice, honey," she told him. "That would be a big help."

And then she began to cry, as she often did these days. She didn't like breaking down at unexpected moments like this in front of Don. She wished it didn't happen. She wished she didn't have to do it, and yet here she was--just like always--crying uncontrollably. She hated herself for such moments, and yet she couldn't stop.

As tired as he was, Don rolled over towards her and put an arm around her, trying his best to quiet her. "Shhhhhh..." he said to her. "Shhhhhh...honey, it's all right. It's okay. You're okay. Just breathe... Just take a breath like that.... Just like that...."

They both fell asleep with his arms around her and with her body curled up in a fetal position inside his embrace.

III. What can sometimes happen, and why.

There was a holiday party the next evening at the Payton's just down the street. Everyone in the neighborhood was invited. Don didn't want to go at first, but after some wheedling from Melissa (if a constant barrage of asking and pleading and maybe even a little bit of begging could fairly be called "wheedling") Don relented. And so they went, even though by the time the decision had finallly been made, they were the last couple to arrive. It was a late enough arrival to be socially awkward, in a way. Too late to be viewed as "fashionably late" and just late enough, in fact, to appear to everyone at the party as the type of thing it actually was.

Driving home later that evening (for even though they had arrived late, they were two of the last people to leave) Don made mention of what a nice time he'd had.

"That Taylor knows which way his shit is wired," Don said. He repeated that very phrase at least a couple of times on the drive home, Melissa noted. She didn't really know what he meant by it, but she didn't bother to ask.

Don had drunk more than his share that night, as it turned out. The drinks kept flowing at the Payton's, and Don had ended up enjoying himself much more than he initially thought he would. She was happy for that, admittedly, but now she was also a little nervous having him steer the way home in their black Lexus SUV. But what was the alternative? Put her behind the wheel? She hated driving--was scared of it, in fact--even under the best conditions. A new home, in a new neighborhood, during the winter, with new twisting streets to memorize, and new directions to get jumbled in her mind. There was no way she was going to drive tonight. She was better to leave the driving to Don, even if he had been drinking. She trusted him enough, although that didn't stop her from clutching the armrest on her car door a time or two.

"No, really," he said again, "that Taylor knows which way his shit is wired. I'm telling you."

"Yes," she said. "They both seemed very nice. He and Heather both. And what a lovely home. So spacious. And she's got quite the decorator's eye."

"Yes, she does at that," Don agreed. "She's quite easy on the eyes, too, I must admit..."

"Well, that's not exactly what I said..."

"That Taylor really knows which way his shit is wired. Yes he does..."

She was quiet for a moment, unsure how best to respond to whichever direction Don was trying to take the conversation. Suddenly she remembered something important she had heard at the party and had wanted, immediately, to tell Don. She had filed it away during the evening, thinking she would mention it to him the first chance she got. And then she had practically forgotten. But somehow, fortunately, something Don had said--maybe it was just simply mentioning Heather Payton's name--jogged her memory enough to help her remember.

"Oh my God, that reminds me," Melissa suddenly said.

"What?"

"Heather told me the most horrible thing at the party tonight. She was visiting with me in the kitchen during a quiet moment when it was just the two of us, and she told me about their little dog, Kipper...Oh my God, it's so horrible. Such a nightmare. Did Taylor mention anything to you?"

"No. What?"

"Taylor didn't say anything to you tonight at the party?"

"I believe I just told you he didn't."

"About their little dog, Kipper?"

"What are you talking about, Lissa?" Don was practically shouting at this point.

"I'm talking about Kipper," she said.

"I'm fully aware of that. But who the hell is Kipper? And what are you trying to tell me about him?"

"I think it's a her, actually. Was a her..."

Don sighed. Loudly.

"Kipper was Taylor and Heather's little dog. A beautiful little Papillon, actually. Heather showed me her picture when it was just the two of us in the kitchen." Melissa paused, biting her lip. When she continued, her voice was crackled with emotion. "Heather was so upset telling me. I can't even imagine how horrible...." She paused again.

"What?" Don said. He was pulling into their driveway. He slowed as he pressed the automatic garage door opener, waiting for it to clatter all the way open before pulling forward. "What happened?"

"It happened just last night. Unbelievable," Melissa continued. "They let her out to go to the bathroom, attaching her collar to the lead tied into their backyard. Of course they had no idea..."

"What happened?" Don asked, although somewhere inside he already knew the answer to his question. He knew what his wife was about to say before she even said it. That was why after she told him, he didn't register much surprise. Not the kind of alarm she was halfway expecting, anyway, or maybe even wanting from her husband. Which bothered her some.

"They heard a terrific commotion coming from the backyard, I guess," Melissa said quietly. "Barking, snarling, growling...what sounded like a typical dog fight. And then a loud, piercing scream. Which didn't sound typical. And then nothing."

"Nothing?"

"No. Nothing. Just the scream. And a howl." She paused again.

"A howl?" Don asked her. "And?"

"And when Taylor went outside into their backyard, turning on the back deck-lights and the patio-lights, winding his way out into the frozen yard, following the dog's lead driven into the hard ground, all he found was Kipper's little collar laying torn in the snow. Ripped in two. Some fur lay on the ground with it. And some blood. Kipper's blood..."

She said it, then. Even though at that point she didn't have to. "I told Heather about the coyote we saw last night on our way home from the movie." Melissa sounded as if she was crying. "Oh Don, do you think I shouldn't have? It was just so horrible, though, what she told me. And that's the first thing I thought of. Honestly. We both stood there in her kitchen and cried and hugged. Thank God no one else came in right then. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want it to be true. But I felt I had to tell her. Oh Don," she said again, "do you think it was the coyotes that got Kipper?"

"Yes," he said. And that was all he said.

IV. Knowing where you are means knowing where you're going.

After the holiday party at the Payton's--and after hearing the horrible story about what happened to poor little Kipper--the Builders were determined to not let the same thing happen to their own little dog, Sam. (Actually, their dog's name--his official full name--was Samwise Gamgee. He was a little black-and-white Boston terrier. Melissa was the only one who called him by his full name, since it hearkened back to one of her favorite characters from one of her favorite books. But even then, she rarely called him by that long nomenclature. Usually when she called him or was talking to him, it was "Sammy." Just that, simply "Sammy." Don called him "Sam," which was also all right with Melissa.)

As it turned out, they took to restricting Sam's unattended forays into the backyard, only letting him out if he was on the safe end of a leash, with one of them (almost always Melissa) holding the handle on the other end, watching over him. It wasn't much fun for him, certainly, as a dog wanting to run freely and to sniff and explore every corner of the yard. There was an element of wildness to him, still--no matter how domesticated his breed may have become--that pulled at the leash each time, ignoring the tight, choking hold of his collar. Melissa felt sorry for him at such times. But then again, she would have felt even sorrier if she and Don hadn't agreed to do this with Sam. It was a part of their lives, at least for the moment--or at least until the coyotes running wild in the woods behind their house decided to leave and to set up home somewhere else.

For Christmas, Don bought her a GPS for her car, just as he said he would. The box it came in was neatly wrapped in shiny green paper, with a curled red ribbon and a trimmed bow on top. Melissa opened the package carefully and held the naked box in her hands. She looked at it for a moment. It wasn't a surprise, necessarily, since he had told her what he was going to get her, but she was thankful for it all the same. She supposed at this point in their relationship, the "surprise element" of presents wasn't everything it used to be.

"It's a Pythia 1500 GPS," Don told her, just as she was quietly reading to herself those very words from the box's cover.

"It's very nice," she said.

"Those are top-shelf GPS systems, dear. Better than Garmin. Better than any product you can get your hands on. Those are very hard to get a hold of. And they don't come cheap either."

"Oh really?" she asked. "How did you know about them? And how were you able to get one?"

He shrugged. "I know a guy at work..."

"Oh, I see." Although she didn't see. Not really. But she didn't ask any further questions.

"Thank you honey. It's very nice."

"You're welcome, dear." He walked over to where she was sitting, bent, and kissed her. It was a brief, warm kiss, and she put her arms around his neck before he pulled away.

"Thank you. Really. It's very nice," she whispered to him.

"Well, I want you to be safe," he whispered back to her. "Only the best for you, Lissa. Now you won't get lost. Now you'll know where you're going at all times."

She cried again for a moment, holding on to her husband--just the two of them--and thinking about the way Christmas mornings used to be. The noise and the laughter. The music. The tree full of brightly colored presents. Toys. The laughter of the children. She had told herself all week that she wasn't going to do this on the morning of Christmas. That she would somehow find a way to make it work, to push away the thoughts. But she didn't do it, not entirely. She couldn't. And so she cried in her husband's arms on Christmas morning. And Don--as Don was always good to do--quieted her and comforted her the best he was able. He may have even cried a little, too.

Afterwards, she set the box under the tree, where it sat for the rest of the day. As she busied herself around the house, she couldn't help but read the small white lettering on the black box each time she walked by the tree. "PYTHIA: KNOWING WHERE YOU ARE MEANS KNOWING WHERE YOU'RE GOING!"

She smiled each time she read the wording on her present. There was a lot of confidence in such a slogan. And despite everything, she had to admit that it made her feel good.

V. A voice like a light going on somewhere in the dark.

Once Don finally got around to installing the new GPS in her car--showing her the instruction manual and carefully putting it in the glove compartment for her, "for future reference," he said--it took Melissa a while before she was actually comfortable with the idea of turning the machine on, waiting patiently for it to acquire its necessary satellite reception, and to get a read on her present location, and to begin trusting it to guide her.

The idea of a machine, after all--a simple little device plugged into the cigarette lighter of her car--with the ability to see her exact location at all times, and to plot her travel down to the nearest detail of the smallest pond off to the side of the road and the minutest street intersection, intimidated and overwhelmed her more than just a little.

Eventually, of course, she did turn it on. And by following the instructions Don had provided for her in the glove compartment of her car, she was able to choose the voice she wanted--the voice that would speak to her and tell her where she needed to go and what she needed to do to get there. Melissa chose as her guiding voice a soft, confident woman's voice.

"It's like a friend, almost," she told Don over her cell phone later that afternoon after she had driven around safely with the aid of his Christmas present. "I like her voice. It's very trusting. It's very strange."

"Um-hmm..." Don answered noncommittedly. He must have been busy at work, she knew. She probably shouldn't have bothered him during the middle of the day with something as trivial as telling him about the voice on her new GPS that he had bought her. But she was excited about it, and she didn't want to wait until later.

"I'm sorry, honey," she said. "You must be busy."

"No," he said, mustering a sudden interest. "No, that's fine. I'm glad you like the GPS."

"I do. I didn't know if I would," she admitted to him. "But once I got around to actually trying it, I love it. I can't imagine what I've been doing all this time without it. Do you know that I drove around all afternoon, listening to her soft, gentle cadence, issuing instructions: 'Turn left. Turn right. Go straight. Go back. Don't look back..." She laughed at that last bit, a little.

Don paused for a moment. "Well, good," he finally said. "Like I told you, it's a top-shelf product, Lissa. I'm glad it's working for you."

Melissa smiled into the phone and nodded. She was still sitting in her car, actually, as she talked to Don--just sitting with her car idling, watching shoppers come and go through the parking lot of a local Target Superstore, their carts pushed in front of them with varying degrees of white plastic bags piled inside the metal cages.

"Yes, I do like it," she said into her phone to her husband, who was somewhere--supposedly at work--doing something. "I like her voice. It's comforting, in a way. It's just right." She sighed, wanting to find the right words yet afraid she was failing. "It's like...I don't know. It's like a light switch, almost, being flipped on in a dark room. That's what her voice is like to me. Almost..."

VI. All the places she would go.

In the days and weeks that followed, Melissa found herself falling under the spell of the latest technological miracle that had suddenly fallen in her lap, in a manner of speaking. In no time at all, she loved her GPS. She found herself driving everywhere, it seemed--to places near and far, on errands and jaunts around the neighborhood, to the store and back, to the post office and back, to the mall for her latest shopping excursion, and to the school, and to the cemetery to visit the children's graves, and to the empty lot where her house used to stand before the fire.

Not only did she rediscover that she could drive--and drive very well--but that she enjoyed driving. The new GPS--her Pythia 1500--settled comfortably into her staid, boring life like a new-found friend, opening doors and windows to her which she didn't even know existed. In it's soothing, mannered, non-threatening voice the miracle machine spoke in carefully constructed phrases--enunciated clearly and precisely in the Queen's English--of exactly where she needed to go. All she had to do was type in her desired destination, wait a moment for the satellite high above to determine her location, and then, all at once, the road became clear. The directions made simple. The quickest route? The easiest route? The most scenic route? The route to take in order to avoid traffic and construction? The choices were hers. She loved it. And it wasn't long before she began to find more and more excuses--particularly during the day, when Don was at work--to slip out to the car and turn on her Pythia and type in a location (whether she actually even wanted to go there or not) and just go.

Her days became longer. The trips grew lengthier. Her desire to be gone and to be lost on the road--alone with her thoughts, alone with her memories of the children and of the life that all of them had had before, alone with the voice from the GPS--she was happier and more content and more at peace than she'd been in a long time.

That was about the time Melissa noticed a change--a distinct and clever change--in her Pythia 1500.

She was alone in her car, during one of the many jaunts around town which had become so commonplace and had grown to become her days, when she spoke aloud, if only to herself, "I can't believe all the time I've wasted...feeling so sorry for myself, sitting around lost..."

"I know," the Pythia said back to her with its calm, measured, mannered, precise voice. "I know, Melissa. And it's all right...."

VII. Knowing where you want to go means knowing where you've been.

At first, of course, the idea of a machine--her beloved GPS, of all machines--talking to her like that, carrying on an intelligent and rational conversation in its controlled and composed manner, took her by complete surprise. After all, how could it not? Such things didn't happen. Not in any real sense, anyway. Not in any corner of the world ruled over by day-to-day logic. That much she knew.

But Melissa also knew--knew all too well, unfortunately--that such an idea as a world ruled benevolently by a wise and abiding logic was about as fantastical a notion as a machine (a complex series of plastic, and wire, and electrodes, and computer chips) forming words and sentences and thoughts and conversations all on its own.

The impossible could be possible, she knew. The unthinkable could be thought, as was so often the case. The idea of her Pythia 1500 talking to her--though it came as an undeniable shock at first--was, in all ways of looking at it, not as surprising as she maybe would have thought. In fact, it would have surprised Melissa even more, perhaps, if her GPS had never started talking to her at all. She trusted it. She believed in it. It had become a friend to her over the days and weeks that she had ridden with it as her sole companion. It had become--in some ways of thinking about it--quite possibly her closest friend. Even closer than her husband, perhaps.

The question wasn't, Why did the Pythia 1500 begin talking to Melissa? The real question was, Why wouldn't it start talking to her? and What took it so long to find its voice?

While on the road together, they would talk. Of anything and everything. Of her past. Of her life as a young girl. Of the hopes and dreams she had while growing up the middle daughter of an insurance agent. Of her college years. Of how she and Don first met, and of how they fell in love. And of the children. And of her cherished role as mother to two beautiful twins, whose hair was golden in the sun, bleached to perfection. And of the fire.

The Pythia 1500 spoke to her, as well, of some of the great thoughts of some of the world's greatest thinkers. Socrates and Plato. Aristotle and Shopenhauer. Nietschze and the Buddha. Kant, Hume, and Jesus Christ. Muhammed. Derrida. Wittgenstein. Descartes. Sartre.

And others.

"How do you know so much?" Melissa asked the GPS one time during an inbound trip into the city, sitting in stalled traffic, a sea of red taillights glowing around them.

"I know everything," the Pythia said. "I know all the words that have been written, and all the words that haven't been written yet. I know what's in your heart, Melissa. I particularly know that."

"How do you know that?" Melissa asked. "How do you know that, when..." She stopped short of finishing her sentence.

"When what?" the Pythia asked her.

"Nothing." She said. It was almost as if she could hear the GPS smile at her.

"When you don't even know what's in your own heart, Melissa? Is that what you were going to say?"

Melissa said nothing, just stared straight ahead at the red end of the car in front of her.

"But you do, my dear," the GPS said to her softly. "You do know what's in your heart. Deep inside. You just don't know that you know it. Not yet, anyway."

"But how..."

"That's what I'm here for, you know. That's what this is all about, after all."

Again, it was almost as if she could hear a smile from the machine on her dashboard.

"I know," Melissa said. And that was all she said.

"Knowing where you want to go means knowing where you've been, Melissa," the machine said to her. "There's nothing more important for you to know."

This time it was Melissa's turn to smile. "That's not your slogan," she said. "You know. The slogan on the box that you came in. The box I unwrapped for Christmas."

"I'm familiar with the slogan," the Pythia said. "The slogan is nice, but...it's only a slogan. I'm talking about the truth here to you now. That's all we talk about, the two of us. The truth."

"The truth?" Melissa asked.

"Yes, the truth," the Pythia 1500 said. "Now lean in close, Melissa. I want to tell you a little secret."

Melissa leaned in close and listened.

VIII. The Perfect Mystery.

There were numerous times when she could have told Don, of course--times too often to count when she tried to set him down or to catch him in a moment when it was just the two of them, and when it was quiet, and when it was right. Many times such moments slipped away, as such moments often do, falling victim to her insecurity, possibly, or to her inablity to find the right words.

After all, what are the right words to tell someone--someone whom you've loved and to whom you've entrusted your whole life--that the voice on the car's GPS was now talking and revealing the most wonderful secrets of life?

She knew Don wouldn't hear such a thing very well. And yet she also knew she had to tell him.

And so she did.

As it turned out, it wasn't quite the moment she had envisioned for herself. But such moments rarely are. She told him about the Pythia 1500 while the two of them stood in the checkout lane at Menard's. Don had noticed--stacked neatly on a nearby shelf near the store's exit--box after box of the same GPS device he had bought his wife for Christmas.

"So how's the GPS working for you, anyway, Lissa?"

"It's great, honey. Thank you," she said. "I love it."

"Well, that's good. I notice it at least gave you the confidence to drive again. I got the credit card statement the other day, and I couldn't help but seeing lots of stops at gas stations this month."

"I know, Don. I'm sorry. I..." and then she stopped. How to go on? "It talks to me," she said to him softly, almost a whisper. "The GPS. The Pythia you bought me. It talks."

"Of course it talks," Don said nonchalantly. "What voice did you choose for it, by the way? You know you can change that from the factory setting. You can even mute it if you want."

Such a thought as muting the Pythia sent a surge of panic and anxiety through her. She felt herself grow cold suddenly.

"No!" she said. "I would never mute it! Why would I do that? I'm not going to do that!"

Don looked at her for the first time during the conversation. He often didn't look at her during conversations such as this.

"I'm not going to mute it Don! The GPS talks to me. It talks to me...as in talking back and forth. It knows my name," she said. And then she almost laughed. "Oh my God, how does it know my name? I don't know, but it does. And it talks to me. And it tells me the most wonderful things that I didn't even know. Things I've always wanted to know but didn't know how. It tells me all these wonderful things... And I..."

And then she stopped. Don was looking at her now. He was fully looking at her. His eyes were half squinting almost, and he was looking at her as if he wasn't sure who or what he was looking at all of the sudden.

"Lissa..." he said. But he didn't know what to say next, and so he said nothing.

And Don continued to say nothing for the remainder of their time in the checkout lane at Menard's, and for the whole ride back home in his black Lexus SUV, and for the rest of that evening. He stayed quiet, as did Melissa.

Later that evening, in the quiet house between them, Melissa entered the room where her husband sat watching the TV alone, a drink in his hand, simply staring at the high-definition flatscreen in front of him, but not really seeing it.

"Goodnight Don," she said, and then bent to kiss him. He made no move to meet her kiss, or to embrace her, or to acknowledge that she was even in the room with him at all. "I love you," she whispered.

And then she went alone upstairs to their bedroom.

In the morning, she was gone. Nowhere to be found. No trace of her anywhere. No indication, in fact, that she had ever existed at all. All of her personal belongings. All of her "things." Gone with her. Wherever she went.

Don awoke in the morning, sitting alone in the same chair he had fallen asleep in the night before. He went upstairs and found his wife gone. All of her things were gone. He called her name, but the house only echoed her name. He went downstairs to the garage and saw that her car was gone, which didn't surprise him.

He called the police. He filled out a Missing Persons report. He called relatives. He waited. The sun went down, and the sun came up, and she was nowhere. Still no Melissa. The police searches turned up nothing. He was called in for questioning. Tests were run. Lie detection, which all came back negative. No motive. No means. He didn't know anything about her disappearance.

People talked, of course, as people would naturally do in such an extreme situation. They talked of Melissa. And they talked of Don. And they talked of the terrible tragedy with the children, and the house fire, and the utter devastation, and the loss, and the sadness, and the incurable, unknowable emptiness of the lives left behind to sift through ashes and to somehow find the strength to go on.

People talked about all of this and about how hard it must be for Don now, considering all the pain he had already been through.

"She was there one moment, and then she was gone," he began to tell people. He told that to the police. And he told it to friends. And to family. He repeated it so often that people began to grow weary of hearing it from him as an explanation.

But, really, what else could he say? What kind of explanation can one give to the unexplainable? She was there one moment, and then she was gone. Everything. Disappeared. Gone. Rivers and lakes were dragged. Posters were taped to poles and to street signs. Rewards were offered. Searches were gathered in nearby fields. Yellow ribbons were tied around trees in the neighborhood. Candles and flowers were laid in the Builder's front yard at the end of Creston Ct.

But Melissa Builder was gone. A cold case. A permanent Missing Person.

And yet the sun continued to set at night and to rise in the morning. And the days flowed into weeks. And then into months. And still Melissa was nowhere to be found. No traces of her or of her car anywhere.

Melissa Builder's strange and unexplainable disappearance became, over time--as the chief of police began to characterize it to the media--"The Perfect Mystery."

IX. The secret.

The winter had started slowly but then had come on stronger and settled in, and with its eventual demise and the steady coming on of spring, the coyotes living in the woods behind the new subdivision began to find their hunger sated--if only temporarily--and grew fatter and less desparate with the passing of the seasons.

Such was the way things worked in the wild. And though the creatures crept and slinked in the shadows of the trees, preferring to keep their strange and noisy neighbors carefully at a distance whenever possible, the coyotes had become more and more used to the human beings with whom they shared a delicate, if somewhat overbalanced, coexistence.

But still, they were wild animals. And as such, they were treated accordingly. Though there had never been a repeated instance of the unfortunate incident which befell the Payton's little dog, Kipper, the residents along Creston Ct. kept a respectful watch along the roads and the edges of the woods which ringed their backyards and their playgrounds and their parks.

Because, after all, sometimes the unimaginable could be imagined. And sometimes things happened which could defy all sense of normalcy and logic and explanation.

In other words, the coyotes had to be careful. They could not be trusted, and the human beings that lived within the perimeter of their packs didn't want to share their living space with the wild dogs. The humans in their carefully manicured lawns and homes wanted the coyotes dead, in fact, and set forth on hunting parties and expeditions scattered throughout the woods to spot them in their rifle sights and to shoot them. The coyotes grew skittish, even more than they were under normal conditions.

Their lives were tenuous, and each day was an exercise of determination and persistence and survival. But still, if they were lucky, the days passed one into the next.

And into the next.

And so on.

And on.

And on.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Price of Admission


"You have your way. I have my way.
As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche
______________________

I was visiting with a good friend of mine, Nick, the other day when, inevitably--as is prone to happen when Nick and I get together and talk for any length of time--the conversation turned to serious matters.

"You know DeRogatis and Kot have a new book about this very topic, don't you?" I asked him.

He looked at me as if I'd just spoken some strange, new language. "What? They do?"

"Yeah. I think it just came out last month," I said. "Or maybe it was a couple of months ago. I don't remember. But it's literally titled, The Beatles vs. The Stones."

"You're kidding," he laughed. "How awesome is that?"

"Isn't it?" I laughed too. "One guess what it's about."

"Yeah, no kidding...."

"Yeah."

We both laughed a little longer, and then we stopped laughing. Primarily because--after all--it wasn't really all that funny, but more importantly because that age-old question asked by music-afficianados (a.k.a. "music snobs") the world over burned to be put out there once again.

"So anyway," I finally said. "What do you think? In your vaulted opinion...who is it? The Beatles or the Stones?"

*[Aside: Now, I realize that in the current global context we live in--with the world's economy on the brink of collapse, wars ravaging every continent, oceans clouded with spilled oil, temperatures climbing beneath the dissolving ozone layer, and polar bears doing their best to break world records of distance-swimming as they splash vaingloriously in search of one last shred of ice-floe melting in the sea's warming waters--the question of Who is better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? might come across to many as...well...maybe just a little bit insensitive, and maybe even borderline mindless and crass. And maybe, in the final analysis, not even all that "borderline." But anyway...]

"So which is it?" I asked again. "Lennon/McCartney or Richards/Jagger?"

This idea of taking sides on such a seemingly trivial, irrelevant issue is an interesting one, I think. It's not as if Nick's answer was going to affect the tides in any way. It's not as if his answer to such an inexplicably unaswerable question would ever (or could ever) serve as the final say on the matter. It's not even as if his answer held much weight or even really mattered all that much to me, I guess.

And yet I wanted to know. His answer to the question did matter to me, in its own way. Which is why I asked it in the first place. Which is why we ask most of the things we ask, I suppose. It's at the heart of why we want to know whatever it is that we want to know--at any given moment--no matter how mundane the information. It's why we google-search, and tune in to talk radio (news, current events, sports), and why we log on to chat rooms, and start arguments online, and turn to supposed "experts" in the field to gather opinion and insight into every esoteric topic available.

We love to have an opinion. This may be due to the old, traditional simile comparing opinions to common body parts, but it's mainly due, I think, to the simple fact that we love to feel--in some small way, at least--that we are right, and that our way of thinking about a given topic is not only the best way of thinking but should also be the only way of thinking about it. We love to share our opinions with others, of course (which, again, is the unarguable reason that the media platform of talk radio exists in the first place and has remained as popular as it has over the years.) At times, we even love to hear the opinions of others (if for no other reason, I suppose, than to see if their opinions validate our own). We love the give-and-take, the back-and-forth, and the animated discussion which allows us--if we so choose--to disagree with the difference of opinions which invevitably arises.

Because opinions will differ. Disagreement will happen. Someone will choose to say that the Beatles were the greatest and most influential pop/rock band of all time. Others will choose to say that, no, in fact it is the Roling Stones who hold that honor.

Who's right? Who's "in the know?" And who isn't? And who cares, really?

Well, as it turns out, I think in many ways (though we may not always even be fully aware of it) we all care about those questions of "Who's right?" and "Whose opinion can best be trusted?" Because we all ask those questions of ourselves and of others, in one way or another, all the time. And we all like to think, finally, that it is our opinion that rises among the ranks of all the other voices struggling to be heard, and that it is our opinion, at the end, that is the one true voice of reason.

But the sticking point for many is that having an opinion (like the cliched simile alluded to above) is easy. It comes naturally to us. It's part of our genetic makeup, in a way. It's biology at its most basic, it would seem. The difficult part comes, however, when push comes to shove (as another cliche goes) and we are forced to defend our opinions. The difficult part comes when we are asked to climb down from our proverbial fence and to answer the simple question put to us of "Well, why do you think that way?" The difficult and often uncomfortable part of having an opinion and of enjoying the freedom we all enjoy of being able to freely share that opinion is that moment when we are backed into a corner, so to speak, and forced to step out of our area of comfort--out of the "grey area" and into the polarizing territory of "black and white" end zones--and to demonstrate that we've actually done our homework and are not simply parroting someone else's opinion that we've heard somewhere along the way, and to show--as if with crude chalk drawings--some sort of logical train of thought that supports our way of thinking, some sort of homemade Aristotelian syllogism proving, without question, that If A is true, and if B is also true, then it stands to follow that C must therefore be true.

Most of us would rather not do that. Because it's tough. And because we are basically, at heart, (most of us, anyway) nice and decent people. And we're really not in this to hurt other people's feelings or to cause argument and distancing and separation. All of which invariably arises--or can, anyway--when we speak out and admit how we feel. Because inevitably someone is bound to disagree. And someone is bound to take offense and to get hurt feelings and to possibly speak out in defense.

And so it begins--again--this neverending cycle of point/counterpoint that seems to characterize our culture these days. We are caught in a media-induced "cult of opinion," almost, in which every little thing that happens is propagandized into ridiculously outsized proportions. The stereotypical talking heads gather around the sterotypical round tables. Discussion begins. Disagreement ensues. Argument erupts. Hysteria. Frenzy. Opinion.

"It is not best that we should all think alike," wrote Mark Twain. "After all, it is difference of opinion that makes horse races."

And though Twain's insight is typically incisive in his 19th-century razor-sharp satirical take, on the other hand he never had to deal with the immediate audience-response backlash of such 21st century meccas of cultural insight as Facebook, Twitter, and Formspring...to name just a few.

*[Aside: My God, what the fuck hath we wrought? I often wonder just what someone along Twain's caliber would think of the mess we've made for ourselves these days.]

I find it interesting and more than a little revealing about the times we live in that someone as strongly opinionated as Twain has never really quite gone away. Recently--in accordance with his wishes and to mark the centennial of his death--the University of California Press has published the first volume in a proposed three-volume set of the posthumous, self-penned Autobiography of Mark Twain. I'm sure within its weighty bulk readers will discover more than ever about the man. And I'm equally sure that within the pages of his Autobiography Twain will succeed in doing what he always managed to do almost better than anyone else--make you laugh at the same time that he's pissing you off with his opinions.

It's a delicate balancing act, a nuanced art, which he seemed to understand perfectly. But not everyone does. In fact, most people don't, I would say. And even Twain--with all of his artistic attempts to mask his strongly held opinions and his moral outrage as humor and as satire--can not seem to shake the inevitable effects that follow both forming and admitting one's opinion: Some people are going to be upset. Some poeple are going to take offense. And some people will disagree with you. And there will be outright consternation, vitriol, and even attack.

That's just the way it seems to go. Always. And as if I needed a case in point, I could look no further, again, than Twain himself, who ironically--while in the news for the publication of his life's letters--is in the news yet again for his most infamous piece of writing, his 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm not going to go into the details of why Twain's most well-known book is never far from the headlines, because I'm assuming that those who pay attention to such headlines (and even those who don't) are probably aware--even if just in passing--of the book's cyclical controversy. The reason for this latest round of back-and-forth debating, however, is centered on the proposed publication--again, almost ironically in keeping with the 100th year of the man's passing--of an "alternative" version of Huckleberry Finn, with the nearly 220 uses of the word "nigger" cleaned up and replaced by the word "slave" throughout the text.

The opinion of many of the book's strongest opponents throughout the years has been largely two-fold: 1.) The repetitive use of the word "nigger"--so obviously a degrading and damning word, meant not only to dehumanize the African slaves who were brought unwittingly to America's shores but to more importantly unhumanize them, as well--is offensive and should be kept from the eyes and ears of schoolchildren around the country for fear they will read and hear the word "nigger" in a book that is quite often--deservedly or not--termed the "greatest American novel," and 2.) Mark Twain was a product of his 19th-century white southern upbringing and in his adult years sought to skillfully hide his racist tendencies beneath the carefully modulated guise of "art."

Of course, an opposite opinion of many of the book's most ardent supporters throughout the years has been largely two-fold as well: 1.) While the word "nigger" is, admittedly, hateful and offensive and demoralizing, the word is also a fact of our nation's tortured and troublesome history. Sanitizing Twain's use of the offending word may sound nicer to our 21st century politically-correct sensibilities, but it is a lie, and 2.) As a product of the 19th-century south in America, Twain could have very easily been a bigot. But anyone who has spent any time in his writings--and particularly deep inside the novel in question--would be hard pressed to honestly call the man a racist. Given his time and place, Twain was oddly and uniquely above it all, and his repeated use of the word "nigger" in his most famous novel was not done without much forethought and interior debate, and it was not done simply out of convenience, and it was not done without the knowledge that the offending word would set off a firestorm of controversy, despite his best efforts to playfully mask his work as "satire."

Now, which one of those opinions is the right one? And how can we tell? And what does it matter, finally? And what does it say about those who are willing to take a stand in an argument such as the one above? What does it say about us if we willingly, for once, slide off the fence we've been sitting on for so long and allow our feet to touch solid ground, either on one side of the fence or the other? Depending on whichever side we find ourselves landing, what does our opinion on such a debate say about us? In the end, what do any of our opinions really say about us?

Are we good people? Do we want to be good people? What is it that motivates us? What moves us? What inspires us to take action, and to take a stand, and to take a side? And what are we willing to gain by taking a stand--one way or the other--on a divisive issue? And what are we willing to lose? What are willing to speak out on? And to stand up for? And to say--if only to ourselves--"This is the truth, as I see it from where I stand. Agree or disagree, or simply agree to disagree with me."

That's a nice mantra, but it's very often easier said than done. Admitting our opinions takes courage. It's hard work, if your heart is into it. There is a toll taken, a price to be paid for admitting what you think and what you feel. Here there be tigers, after all. And usually there's no turning back. And sometimes those tigers bite.

*[Aside: But the thing about opinion and about searching for the truth is that sometimes, when we find it, the truth isn't really what we thought it would be all along. Sometimes the truth can be pretty disappointing. Our perception of the truth is deceiving. Our opinions--acting as signposts, if you will, that guide us along the way in our search for the truth--can sometimes lead us in the right direction and sometimes lead us to a dead end. Admitting those opinions, and defending those opinions in the name of Truth (whatever shape and form that may take at the moment) is a tricky art. For after all, what we deem to be true--as expressed by our opinion--may in fact turn out to be an untruth, may in fact turn out to be an outright lie. Did we mean to do this? Is this a fair representation of how we really feel? Did we mean to hurt anyone? Usually no. But still the fact remains--like Col. Jessep bellowing from the witness stand in Nicholson's menacing, inimitable growl: "You can't handle the truth!"-- simply admitting what we think and feel may earn us more enemies than friends. And sometimes that's not fair. Sometimes we wish it were the other way around. But once you say something or write something, your thoughts and feelings are out there, free to be embraced by others, and free, as well, to be rejected. And there are no "takebacks." Not really. Not in the adult world, anyway. No matter how much we may wish it could be different, very often what we say--in the name of "Our Opinion"--goes.]

"Who do I think is better between the Beatles and the Stones?" Nick said back to me. And then he laughed again, obviously stalling for time. "Wow! Are you serious? What kind of question is that?"

"It's just a question," I said. "DeRogatis and Kot wrote a whole book about that very debate. And about what it means, I suppose--what it says about you--if you fall in either camp as claiming either band to be better than the other."

"So Beatles fans are all about this and that, and fans of the Rolling Stones are about such and such?"

"Yes, I guess," I said. "Something like that, anyway. A simple delineation. Division and classification, and all of that exciting rhetorical nonsense..."

"What's good and what's bad?" Nick said.

"Yes, something like that."

"Real psychoanalytical type of stuff?"

I laughed. "It sure sounds like it to me. I'm sure if you claim to be a Stones fan, somewhere in the analysis it surely must mean you're a misogynistic asshole or something."

"'Under My Thumb,'" he offered.

"And don't forget 'Brown Sugar,'" I said.

"Racist tendencies," he said.

I laughed. "Of course."

"Simple division among people," Nick said. "Beatles fans over here. Rolling Stones fans over there."

"Segregation in its purest sense."

"Black and white."

I nodded. "There's what's right, and there's what's right," I said, quoting Raising Arizona.

"And never the two shall meet," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "It's something like that."

He laughed again and sighed, still obviously stalling for time. "Damn...that is admittedly a tough question."

"There's no tougher question in all the world," I joked. "Your whole life has come down to this very moment. The fate of the world hinges on your opinion. Now speak your mind! The Beatles or the Stones? What are you afraid of?"

He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. And maybe I had. I don't know. He sighed. "I really don't know. I need to think about it a little more."

"No! Thinking about it kills it. Life in the moment. Inspiration of the now."

He was still looking at me as if I'd lost my mind. "'Inspiration of the now?'" he said back to me.

I laughed. "Or something like that..."

"Something like that?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, I don't know. I don't have an opinion on your question right at this moment."

I laughed. "What are you afraid of, hurting my feelings?"

"What?"

"Are you afraid I might disagree with you?" I said. "That I might point out the error of your ways? That I might have an opinion that differs from your own and that you might piss me off?"

"Personally I don't care whether you agree with me or not," he said.

And then I started to sing. I actually started singing, doing the best impersonation of Paul McCartney that I could muster, given the time of day. "'You say yes, I say no. You say stop, but I say go, go, go....'"

Nick only looked at me and shook his head sadly. Obviously he wasn't buying it.

"'You say goodbye, and I say hello....'"

"Good Lord," he finally said, laughing all the more. "What is the matter with you? Are you trying to piss me off or something? Of course the Rolling Stones were the better of the two. There's no question..."

Monday, January 3, 2011

Robert Frost May Have Been Right When He Said "Earth's the Right Place for Love," But Then Again He Wasn't Around to See Such Times as These


I: The place is always different. It's always the same place.

Depending on the day of the week, there may be a crowd--groups of one or two sitting lonely in their space at the bar, not saying much to one another, or larger groups and families sitting around tables, with laughter and loud talk, and with platters of appetizers and desserts and plates of food and drinks and coffee and french fries grown cold scattered in front of them. Or there may be no crowd at all. Just a TV or an iPod's eclectic playlist playing over the loudspeakers.

Of course it all depends on the day of the week.

Regardless, though, one thing is certain since the ban on public smoking went into effect just a few short years ago: there is no more cigarette smoke in the air--no more ridiculous designation of "Smoking" and "Non-Smoking" areas in restaurants and in bars, as if the smoke from someone's burning cigarette had somehow been able to recognize, all along, the invisible barrier between the two halves of a room and to hover in the air in its rightful place.

He is glad that he listed on his profile the fact that he is unwilling to accept a smoker. Not these days anyway. He believes he even checked the box next to "Dealbreaker" about this very thing, but he's not quite sure. (And he wonders, too, if this somehow makes him a hypocrite, since every now and again he enjoys a petit cigar himself. What will happen when she finds this out? Will this in fact be a "Dealbreaker" for her? Is he a liar? Will she accept it, only after he's gargled with mouthwash, and brushed his teeth, and gargled once more for good measure? Is this the sort of thing she can find herself getting used to, long after dating him, and getting to know his jokes, and his sexual technique, and the way he...?)

He could use a smoke right about now, he figures, as he pulls into the parking lot, checks his cellphone for the time--satisfied that he is conveniently late by only a few minutes, thereby making himself look not-too-serious and not-too-overeager--and then moves as if to slip his phone in his pocket, until he thinks better of it and pushes the buttons for silence so it won't ring in the middle of things.

"Which car is hers," he wonders? Walking slowly through the parking lot to the restaurant's front doors, taking his time, not wanting to rush anything, he checks out the rows of cars parked in their spaces and wonders what kind of car she drives. "What does that say about someone, after all? What does it say about her? And what does it say about me, that I should wonder about such a thing?"

Life is too short to worry about such things. Life is so damned long at times. He opens the doors to the restaurant with a sigh, unsure if that was himself sighing or the hinges of the door in the cool, wet air. He is aware, and he is not aware. His senses are firing. He feels blood rushing to his face, to his fingers, to his limbs, and to every part of his body. And yet he is numb. And he is unfeeling, except for the feeling deep in his stomach that this is the last time he is doing this.

II: The way things used to be.

He hangs up his coat in the hall closet, adjusts the heat in his small apartment, and moves into the kitchen--in the cupboard below, where his liquor bottles are--to fix himself another drink. Another one won't hurt, he knows, if only to join the ranks of the two he drank earlier in the evening with her. It's always a tricky thing, particularly on first dates like that--like the ones he's getting used to (or not, as the case may be)--knowing whether to order a drink, and then, having ordered one, knowing how many to follow it with. He finds that two drinks, usually, are acceptable. Two smaller ones. And it is always a good idea, of course, to wait to order only after she has made up her mind on what it is she is going to drink. That always helps to set the tone of the evening, he finds.

Like tonight, for instance. She ordered a margarita. "Not bad," he thought. So he ordered a Crown and Coke. A short one. Two of them, as it turned out. And she didn't seem to mind. Which was good. He drops ice in his glass, pours Crown Royal over the cubes, and watches and listens as the amber liquid glistens down and into the ice's narrow crevices. The ice crackles, instantly beginning to melt under the alcohol's smooth heat. Maybe he'll mix it with Coke. And maybe he won't this time. Not now, when it's just him, by himself, fixing a drink at home. And not at this time of night anyway. Probably not.

He sets the glass atop a coaster on the table next to his couch, grabbing his laptop as he sits down and powers it up. He'll log on--only briefly--to check his email and to possibly see who else might be online this hour on a Saturday night. It's not as if he doesn't have other things he could be doing at the moment, he knows that. Why, if he wanted to he could very easily grab his keys and his coat--which he just put away--and head out again to join some friends at their favorite place downtown. It's only a ten-minute drive, from door to door. He's timed it before, and besides his car is still warm. The thought is admittedly inviting.

But his laptop computer is warm, too, he also has to admit. And this is also, in its own way, somewhat inviting. And this thought makes him smile and almost laugh, if only to himself.

He'll be online only for a moment or two. Just to check his email. And to see if there are any new matches. There might be, after all. Sometimes there are new matches sent to his profile at the oddest of hours. Like now for instance. There could be. You never know. Most of them aren't worth the time, really. Some nice pictures on occasion, but almost always--predictably--the same tired, worn-out phrases used as profile headings ("LiveLaughLove," "Trying This For The First Time," "Trying This For The Last Time," "Tired Of Kissing Frogs," "Looking For My Prince Charming," "Dreaming Of My Last First Kiss," and so on....)

He thinks about his sons, and he wonders if they are up at this time of night on a weekend. It's possible, he supposes, and in fact even probable. The boys only recently got their own cellphones, an idea his ex-wife decided would be a good one, even though he initially had to disagree (his argument being that their sons would have the rest of their adult lives to be tied to technology and to the weight of adult responsibility that comes with it). He was afraid that perhaps the boys would unwittingly either lose or misuse the phones, a fear which his youngest is wont to actualilze by often misplacing his phone and sending everyone--for at least a day--in a paroxysm of worry and disruption until the damned thing is found.

He glances once more at the time and decides against calling. Not at this hour, he figures. He'll do it in the morning. Maybe make some plans to take his two sons out to lunch. It would all depend, of course, on what their mother had planned for them, but still...it never hurt to ask.

Not much, anyway.

He sets his computer off to the side for the moment. No emails, as it turns out, and no one of much interest online at this time anyway. He sighs and looks at his cellphone again. Maybe he should send her a quick text? Would that be inappropriate after a first date? What are the rules these days, he wonders? How long should he wait before calling or texting or emailing or communicating with her? What sort of message does he want to send her, anyway?

"Thank you for a lovely evening."
"Had a great time. Look forward to seeing you again."
"Have to admit, I find myself thinking of you."
"Sorry, but I don't think we're a good fit. Good luck in your search."
"Good riddance."
"Goodbye."
"Good Lord you smelled nice tonight. What was that perfume?"
"Hope you don't mind, but I thought I should inform you that later tonight I'll probably be replaying over and over in my mind images of your sweet ass..."
"Lol."

Always leave them laughing. That was the way. Put them at their ease, possibly, while at the same time putting them off their guard just a little. Is that a serious "Laughing Out Loud," or is it just more of your sarcasm? Are you a gentleman or an asshole? Or both? Who could tell these days? Who could really tell? No one. Not now, not ever. Leave them wondering.

Laughing. Out. Loud.

He types in a quick text on his phone. Maybe she'll be home tonight, too, he thinks. She said she was going straight home--something about a headache and about being tired--but maybe she left him at the restaurant and drove to her favorite spot downtown to join up with some of her girlfriends, to share a drink or two with them and to talk about her date earlier in the evening and this new guy she met for the very first time. Her "Prince Charming." Her "Last First Kiss" (even though--technically--what they did at the end of their date tonight, that tentative noncommittal hug and goodnight kiss on the cheek--the awkard coming together of strangers, which was becoming sadly too familiar at this point in his life--could not now or ever be qualified as a "kiss" outright, he laughs quietly to himself. Again.)

It could be, too, that perhaps she went right home like she said she was going to, tired as she said she claimed to be. To nurse her headache, as she had said. Or maybe there was another scheduled date after the one she spent with him. Maybe there was another guy she had met online who she was planning to meet up with as soon as she left the restaurant. Maybe that was why she had seemed a little too distracted toward the end, a little out of place and with her mind on other things. Or was that all in his imagination? Did he know? Did he want to know?

"Maybe she'll text me," he thinks to himself, not for the first time. "Maybe I should just wait to see if she texts me. But maybe she's waiting for me to be the first, to 'break the ice,' as they say, and to open the door. Maybe she's waiting right now, asking herself the same questions that are going through my mind. Maybe."

He pushes SEND on his phone and then lays it down on the table next to his drink and next to his laptop. "So many ways these days to talk to someone who isn't even in the same room with you," he muses. Louis Armstrong's lovely gravel-voiced "What a Wonderful World" comes to mind for some reason, and he has to admit that, yes, while he probably is a gentleman--or at least would like to think so anyway--he is also, undoubtedly, an asshole. He knows that much at least.

He reaches into his hall closet and grabs a coat, a different one from the one he wore only a short while ago on the date. This coat is the one he likes to jokingly refer to as his "smoking jacket," for reasons which were soon to become apparent to no one but himself. Again. He grabs his glass from the table, and a cigar, and steps out onto his back deck to enjoy a quick smoke by himself.

The air is cool, but it will soon be colder. So he's going to enjoy a cigar out here on his deck while he still can. Winter is on its way. The trees are empty of leaves, and those old trees that aren't completely empty are emptying fast. The last of the brown leaves clinging desperately to their limbs--their old ways of life--must know (deep inside their "leaf consciousness") that their days, as they used to know them, were ending. Had ended, in fact. And those stubborn leaves were simply fooling themselves, thinking they could hold on much longer. Soon enough the wind and the rain and the coming snow would prove them wrong. It wasn't long. It never was.

But for now, at least, he can stand outside--with the leaves that still made music softly in the branches above--and smoke one of his petit cigars. He doesn't actually smoke them (truth be told), he only likes the smell of them, and he refuses to actually inhale the smoke into his throat or lungs. He puffs on them, feeling the smoke curl about his face and nose, breathing in the aroma of the tobacco without breathing it deeply inside where it could do the most damage.

He's good at not lettting anything in that he doesn't want to let in. It's all a state of mind, really. Power of will. Focus and attention. Breathing in and out. As simple as that. The smell of the cigar smoke. Knowing that it's just him tonight. Standing alone outside. Smoking, like he does every now and again. And he knows that it's just him tonight, as well, when he goes back inside after enjoying his cigar. He knows that he won't have to gargle with mouthwash, and to brush his teeth, and to gargle once more for good measure.

Because it's just him.

He takes a good, long drink from his glass. The ice cubes rattle, reluctant to let go of the whiskey, which he can understand. He feels the alcohol burn all the way down inside as he takes the last remaining puffs on his small cigar and then flicks it out into the yard, where it will burn and smolder for only a moment, until the wind takes the flame away.

He stands a moment in the cool, damp air. Inside it's warmer. He hopes his sons are asleep at this time of night, warm in their own beds. This makes him think of the night he first moved out of his old house, his old life, telling his wife that he had decided to leave and then hearing her say, "Good." The boys were younger then, and he had read to them that night from their favorite storybooks, rocking them quietly on his lap until they had fallen asleep. He tucked them in their beds--softly, gently kissing them in their sleep, and telling them that he loved them very much, and that he was sorry. He told them goodbye, then, even though they were not awake to hear him. And he cried that night, standing there at the foot of their beds. And he was glad, in one way at least, that they weren't awake to see and hear him.

Inside, his computer screen has gone black, resorting to its Sleep mode. He wonders if there are any emails awaiting him. "Maybe there are some by now," he thinks. And he also wonders if his phone has beeped with an incoming call or an incoming text message. The plate glass on the sliding door that leads to his back deck is thick enough to have muffled any such alerts. He'll have to check. She may have called, after all. Or maybe responded to his text. Or maybe not. He doesn't know. He doesn't want to know. He wants to know.

He looks out at the dark of his back yard one last time before turning to go inside. He looks into the darkness and sees nothing there. But he hears the soft moan of the wind and the leaves somewhere high above in the distance singing the only song that leaves know how to sing when they are dying.