â€śYou remembered,â€ť she says, with mock surprise and delight. She reaches through the dissipating afternoon, finds his hand in his pocket, extracts and briefly holds it. He pushed the right buzzer. He won this round.
Miriam carries her eighth year of catastrophe the way some women wear a gold locket or tea rose perfume. Her fingers suddenly repel him. His mother, Geraldine, disappeared when he was in the ninth grade. But they donâ€™t talk about this. There isnâ€™t room enough for both abandonments.
â€śWhere I come from, even tragedy is rationed,â€ť Miriam said.
There is always space enough for her fatherâ€™s cancer, how he turned gangrenous, ocher, and foul. Itâ€™s as if his motherâ€™s instantaneous removal never happened.
One day his mother vanished. She left a note. Going to New Mexico. There was no further communication, not even a Christmas or his birthday, though he waited for years. Surely her inexplicable absence would be explained and resolved. Logic dictated this. A forwarding address, an exchange of photographs, a telephone call or a postcard.
His mother would appear at his college graduation. Thatâ€™s why he had his hair cut and bought a gray cashmere suit he couldnâ€™t afford. He was valedictorian. He surveyed the auditorium row by row, memorizing family groupings, searching for solitary women.
â€śAll dressed up for Mommy?â€ť His father slapped the back of his expensive suit and laughed. â€śSheâ€™s not coming, son.â€ť
His father drunk, wearing a sports jacket encrusted with cat and dog fur, stained with animal urine and blood and no tie. Thomas has his own flames, his own incendiary seasons, but in the equations they live by, his have been cancelled out. He is insignificant, measurement unnecessary, just erase.
â€śDid you sleep last night?â€ť Heâ€™s surprised by how angry he suddenly is.
â€śSleep is a relative state. There are strata, interpretations. Know how many clock towers ring out the chimes?â€ť she asks.
â€śNo.â€ť Heâ€™s paused near a colossal maple, a staggering burgundy. A good chemist could take the separate elements of autumn and distill them. A superior chemist could put them in a bottle and drink it. Thatâ€™s the hazard of maples and secret of clarets and grenadine. Of course, oaks are sturdier. You could graft them on for hands. His father was right. He should have been a surgeon.
â€śFive,â€ť Miriam informs him. â€śThe obligatory staccato horror of the campanile. Then four little churches like identical grotesque afterimages. Distant, like a recurring nightmare. Or a bronze tumor inside your skin. And you didnâ€™t use to have circles under your eyes.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m forty-six. Things accrue. I would live with much more for you,â€ť he hears himself saying.
â€śWhat else?â€ť She stares at him. â€śI think youâ€™re at the end of your rope, farm boy. The cupboard is empty.â€ť
â€śIâ€™d lose limbs for you. Organs. Corneas. This is nothing.â€ť He touches her cheek.
â€śOh, itâ€™s something. Youâ€™ve got bats under your eyes.â€ť
He assumes she must mean bags. He wants to ask for clarification. What he says instead is, â€śWhen they start flying, tell me.â€ť