Darkness on the edge of town
By Eileen Battersby
Things You Should Know
The most daring voice of her generation, A.M. Homes writes with terrifying compassion about the things that matter most. Homes's distinctive narratives illuminate our dreams and desires, our memories and losses, and our profound need for connection, and demonstrate how extraordinary the ordinary can be. In "Chinese Lesson," we meet Geordie, a man watching over his wandering, senile mother-in-law by means of an electronic chip implanted in the back of her neck. In "Remedy," an advertising executive bolts from the city one afternoon for the imagined comfort of her childhood home and finds that her parents have allowed Ray, an eccentric wellness guru, to move in. Sexy and inspiring, "Georgica" offers a meditative narrative about one woman's unconventional strategy for getting pregnant. "The Former First Lady and the Football Hero" is the deeply moving, darkly comic story of a former First Lady's courage in dealing with the President as his mind slowly evaporates.
In these beautifully written stories, we find shape-shifters, children running headlong into the darkness of adolescent sexuality, a man passionately wanting to live but not knowing how. And, most importantly, we find ourselves.
An expert literary witness, A.M. Homes takes us places we would not go alone and brings us back-always with uncanny emotional accuracy, wit, and empathy. She is one of the master practitioners of American fiction, and Things You should Know is a landmark collection.
Excerpt from Things You Should Know
The Weather Outside is Sunny and Bright
In the morning there are marks where the pillow touched his face, where his T-shirt wrinkled against his back, from the waistband of his underwear, elastic indentions, ghostly traces. He peels off the socks he wore to sleep, the pattern is like a picket fence. With her fingernails she writes on his chest, Milk, Butter, Eggs, Sugar. The invisible ink of finger rises up like a welt. In the shower it becomes perfectly clear—dermatographism. For the moment he is a walking grocery list—it will fade within the hour.
"I dreamed I was in the eighteenth century, having tea in a very elaborate cup." He is a clockmaker lost in time, keeping track of the seconds, fascinated by the beats, hours passing, future becoming past. "And you? How did you sleep?"
"I dreamed the building was sealed, there were no doors, no windows, no way in or out, nothing to knock, nothing to ring, nothing to bang against," she says. "The house of glass was suddenly all solid walls."
"You are what you dream," he says.
"It's true." She puts on her shoes, slipping a small piece of lead into both left and right, to keep her mind from wandering, to keep herself steady. "I'm late," she says.
"You have a feather," he reaches out to pluck something poking out of her skin. She sometimes gets feathers; they erupt as pimples and then a hard quill like splinter presses through the same way a feather sticks through the ticking of a pillow or the seat of a sofa.
"Is that the only one?" she asks.
He searches her arms and legs and pulls out a couple more.
"All plucked and ready to go," he says.
"Thanks," she says. "Don't forget the groceries."
He nods. "Yesterday there was a fox in the woods; for a minute I thought it was you. I went to say hello and it gave me the angry eye—you're not angry with me, are you?"
"It wasn't me. I was at the office all day."
On her way out the door she puts a clump of dirt in her mouth, presses a pumpkin seed in, and swallows for good luck.
"Drive carefully," he says. He sprinkles fish food into the pond of koi, flips a penny in, and waves good-bye.
Outside, the lawns are being watered, the garden men are going around with their weed whackers, trimming, pruning. Everything is shape and order. There is the tsk, tsk, tsk hissing sound as the sprinklers spit water over the grass.
The landscape winding down the hill reminds her of Japan, of Scotland, of another country in another time. There are big rocks, boulders, and sand; a desert, dense vegetation clinging to the sides of the craggy hills. There are palm trees, and date trees, and orange and lemon groves.
There is a fog in the canyons, a hint of blue sky at the top of the hill. The weather changes from block to block—it is impossible to know what kind of day it will be.
She sits at her desk, pouring of drawings, reading between the lines. Her workspace is industrial, minimal: a skylight, an exposed wooden ceiling, furniture from an old factory.
Four pens on her desk, ten paper clips, a plastic spoon. Twenty steps from her desk is the door. She is always counting. There is something reassuring about numbers, she does math in her head, math to keep herself entertained, to keep everything in order.
Magnetized, she attracts things—right now she has a paper clip on the tip of every finger, like press-on nails. When she's bored, she decorates herself in loose change, quarters up and down her arms. Her watch clings to her wrist, synched with her heartbeat. Her pulse an even sixty beats per minute. When she exercises, she takes the watch off, afraid of breaking time.
"You are a magnetic, highly influential person," a psychic once told her. "People and things are drawn to you."
Making herself a cup of tea, she puts in a pinch of catnip—it makes her pleasant and playful. When she smiles, a thin line of soil at her gumline is easily mistaken for a tobacco stain.
Architectural forensics is her field—why buildings do what they do. Often called upon as an expert witness she is known as "X-ray specs" for her ability to read the inanimate, to intuit what transformed it, to find the otherwise invisible marks of what happened and why. She is the one you want to call when there is a problem to solve—cracking, sinking, the seemingly inexplicable.
Her first appointment is a disaster. From the moment she's out of the car, she's uncomfortable. She has flashes of things she doesn't want to know—other people's memories. The owner meets her in the parking lot. "It's an insurance question. It's a liability question. It's a question of who's going to pay," he tells her, as he sweeps a single long lock of hair across his bald head and sweat pastes it down.
"There's something wrong with your façade," she tells him.
"A partial collapse," the owner says, pointing at the damage.
She circles the building. If the man weren't watching, she would make herself into a squirrel or a bee and get inside it. She would get between the walls, between what was original and what was applied later. Instead, she simply uses an extension rod and pokes at things.
The owner moves to let her into the building.
"Old keys have more power than new," she says as the man fumbles.
"Could I have seen it coming? Could I have known? There was no warning."
"Or was there? Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there—there is something called willful blindness."
"Is that a legal term?" he asks nervously.
"No," she says, getting back into her car.
"Don't you need to get inside?" he asks.
"I've seen enough," she says.
"A woman died," the man confesses.
She already knows.
A click of the shutter. The day is spent looking, taking notes with her camera, making permanent what she sees in her mind's eye. She is a special kind of anthropologist, studying what can't be touched or seen. She drives moving through air counting the molecules.
She is thinking of shapes—volumes, groined vaults of gothic cathedrals, cable roofs, tents. She is thinking of different kinds of ceilings. She is noticing there is a lot of smog, a suffocating layer.
As a child she fell down a well, like something out of a nursery rhyme. "That explains it," her teachers used to say, but it didn't. One thing had nothing to do with the next, except that she was curious, always curious, but there was more to it than that.
She walks with a sight limp, an unnecessary reminder. She remembers the well, she remembers thinking that she saw something there—she was eight almost nine—leaning over, catching a glimpse of something in the corner of her eye.
She remembers screaming as she fell, the echo of her voice swelling the well. Wedged, her leg oddly bent. She remembers silence.
And she remembers her mother shouting down to her, "Imagine you are a bird, a winged thing, and push yourself up. Imagine you are a flower, growing. Imagine you are something that can scale a stony wall." Her mother shouting; many, many hours of firemen and ropes. She remembers thinking she would fall to the center of the earth, she remembers the blackness. And her picture in all the papers.
After that, while she was resting in bed, her broken leg healing, her mother would hold her hand and stroke it. "What does it feel like to be a kitten? What does a little kitten hear or see?" And slowly her features would change and she would be a little kitten-headed girl. "And what does a kitten do with her paws?" her mother would ask, stroking her hand, and little furry mitts would appear.
"You're very special," her mother would say. "When you fell down the well, you didn't know that."
She nods, still not sure what her mother is getting at—aren't all little girls special?
"Some children are born with a fine coating of hair, but when you were born you had feathers—that's how I knew. When you were living inside me you were a duck, splashing. You knew what a good swimmer you are—you had a lot of practice."
Looking out over the city, she receives a thousand messages at once, a life of information.
The next stop is more promising—a developer wants her opinion about where to build his building.
"You come highly recommended," the man says, unrolling his plans across the hood of her car.
She reads them. Her eyes are like sea weather, Mediterranean blue. When you look at her you have the distinct sense that she's right.
"If I were you," she says, "I'd build in reverse, I'd build into the hill, and then on the hill install a big mirror and situate it so that it gives you a view on both sides. Put the parking lot above rather than below. You'll get a double view, an interesting courtyard effect, and more protection from the wind."
She opens her trunk, takes out a white flag and holds it up. The flag is instantly billowing. "It's windier than you think, and when you add a new building you could end up creating a wind tunnel: the Venturi Effect—in certain configurations, the wind speed increases."
"I never heard of that."
She puts the flag back in her trunk.
"What else you got in there?" he says, peering in.
Shovel, gallon of water, long green garden hose, ladder, rope, rubber gloves, knee pads. She is always climbing, swinging, getting on top, going under.
She bends to sift through the soil. "This looks sandy. Sandy soil has a liquefaction factor," she says. "In an earthquake it's not the 'this' that gets you," she says, moving her hand from side to side. "It's the 'this.'" She pumps her hand up and down. "A lot of it has to do with what kind of soil is down below."
The man scoops up some dirt. "Is that a good thing?"
"It's a good thing you know about it and can plan accordingly. It's all about what rock you're on."
All day the building collapse haunts her, she keeps seeing the sticky guy sweeping sweaty strands of hair across his scalp, patting them down. He is slimy, slithering, slipping in and out of lies. She has the sensation of great weight, of something falling on her, crushing her. She feels out of breath but she keeps moving to keep herself from feeling trapped.
She stops for lunch at the health food store. The boy behind the counter sings a song he's just written. "I'm here now," he says. "But it's just temporary." Everyone is something else, everyone wants something more.
She is back at the office. People bring her samples of materials, combinations of things. They want to know what goes with what. What brings success, power. What juxtapositions spell trouble? What do you think of titanium? Curved surfaces? How much does a building really need to breathe? They want to know how she knows what she knows. "Did you study Feng Shui?"
The temperature creeps up—the air is still like the steady baking heat of an oven, unrelenting, broken only by the shadow of a cloud passing over.
In the afternoon, she visits her mother. The doors of the nursing home open automatically; a cool disinfectant smell pours out. Vacuum sealed, frozen in time. There is an easel by the main desk: GOOD AFTERNOON. THE YEAR IS 2002. TODAY IS WEDNESDAY, MAY 16TH. THE WEATHER OUTSIDE IS SUNNY AND BRIGHT. Her mother's unit is behind a locked door. There is a sign on the wall: "Look as you are leaving, make sure no one follows you."
Her mother doesn't know her name anymore. It happened over the course of a year. The first time she pretended it was a mistake—of course you know, she said. And her mother seemed to catch herself, but then it happened again, it happened more, and then sometimes she knew her, sometimes she didn't—and then she didn't.
Every day, she visits. She brings her camera, she takes a picture. It is her way of dealing with the devastation, the rug pulled out from under.
"Hello," she says, walking into the room.
"Hello," her mother repeats, a parrot, echoing.
"How are you today?"
"How are you today?"
"I'm good," she sits at the edge of her mother's bed, unfastening her mother's long braids, brushing her hair.
"Remind me," her mother says. "Who are you?"
"I'm your daughter."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because I remember you," she says.
"From before?" her mother asks.
"My sock is itching," her mother says, rubbing the tag around her ankle. All the residents are tagged—an alarm goes off if they wander out—the tag leg is alternated, but it remains an irritant.
"What can we do?" the nurse says. "We don't want to lose anyone, do we?"
She rubs lotion on her mother's leg. She puts a chestnut in her mother's pocket just as she once saw her mother do to her grandmother—to ward off backaches. She puts an orange she picked this morning on the nightstand, resting on a bed of clover. Protection, luck, vision.
She takes her mother for a walk in the wandering garden, an inconspicuous circle, you always end where you begin—it guarantees no one gets lost.
"Let me take your picture," she says, posing her mother by some flowering vines. "You look very pretty."
"You look very pretty," her mother says.
Holding hands, they walk around and around.
"I hope you remember the way home," her mother says.
"Remember when I fell in the well? Remember when you told me how strong I was and that I had to put my mind to it?"
Her mother nods. "I used to know something," her mother says. "Have you always had a limp?"
She visits her mother and then visits the other women up and down the hall. "Imagine us," they say, "sitting here, like lame ducks. We see it all. There but for the grace, go I."
When her mother is gone, she will continue to visit the unvisited. Every day she touches them; they are wrinkly, covered in barnacles and scars, filled with secret histories, things no one will know. She touches them and their stories unfold.
"You look familiar," one of them says. "I know you from somewhere."
"You know me from here," she says.
"Where was I before this?" the woman asks. "Does anyone know where I am? I'm missing," she says.
Another woman runs through the rooms, opening all the dresser drawers, searching. "What are you looking for?" the nurse asks.
"I am looking for something," she says in tears. "That's what I'm looking for."
"Describe it to me," she says, laying her hand on the woman's arm.
"I don't know exactly what it is. I'm looking for something that I recognize. I think maybe I'm in the wrong place. If I could find something familiar I would know where I belong."
She brings them pictures of themselves.
"Is this who I am?" they say.
"Sexy, aren't I?"
The sea. She drives to the ocean and parks. She takes a picture. She finds that fact that she is not the only one moving calming.
She is a navigator, a mover, a shifter. She has flown as a gull over the ocean, she has dived deep as a whale, she has spent an afternoon as a jellyfish floating, as an evergreen with the breeze tickling her skin, she has spent two days as water and found it difficult to recover. A seer, she is in constant motion, trying to figure out what comes next.
It is early evening. The sky is charcoal, powdery black. She is a coyote at the edge of the grass: her spine elongated, her nose pushing forward, and her skull rolling back. There is something slippery about the coyote—a million years of motion, of shifting to accommodate, keeping a fluid boundary—she is coated in a viscous watery solution.
She digs through the bushes. There is a girl in the backyard, floating alone on a raft in the water. She walks to the pool, dips her tongue into the water, and sips.
She hears the girl's mother and father in the house. Shouting.
"What am I to you?" her mother says.
"It's the same thing, always the same thing, blah, blah, blah," her father says.
"Your life is a movie," the coyote tells the girl. "It's not entirely real."
"Tell me about it," the girl says.
The coyote starts to change again, the shift. Her skin goes dark, it goes tan, deep like honey and then crisper brown, as if it is burning, and then darker still, toward black. Downy feathers start to appear, and then longer feathers, like quills. Her feet turn orange, fold in, and web. A duck, a big black duck, like a dog, but a duck. The duck jumps into the pool and paddles toward the girl.
They float in silence.
Suddenly, the duck lifts her head as if alerted. She pumps her wings. Her body is changing again, she is trading her feathers for fur, a black mask appears around her eyes, her bill becomes a snout. She is standing on the flagstones by the pool, a raccoon with orange webbed feet. She waddles off into the night.
There is a tremor. The lights in the house flicker, the alarm goes off. In the pool the water shifts, a small tidal wave sweeps from one end to the other, splashing up onto the concrete.
She hurries back to the car, shifting back into herself. She rushes toward home. There is a report of the tremor on the radio news, "A little rock-and-roll action this afternoon for you folks out there," the disc jockey says. "The freeways are stop and go, while crews are checking for damage." She takes surface roads, afraid of the highways, the overpasses, the spaghetti after the quake.
She pulls into the driveway, the house is still standing, nothing seems terribly wrong.
Every day she carries a raw egg in her pocket, to collect the negative flow of energy—it acts like a sponge, absorbing it, pulling it away from her. At the end of the day she smashes it back to earth, the front yard is littered with white eggshells.
Her key doesn't work, small rumble must have caused a shifting of the tumbles, a loosening of the lock, the key goes in but won't turn. She is knocking, she is ringing the bell, going back to the car and tooting the horn.
"I couldn't get in," she says when Ben opens the door.
"The lock is broken," he says, turning the knob. "Your hair is wet."
"I stopped for a swim."
"And I think you lost your shoes." He points at her bare feet. They are almost back to normal, but the three middle toes remain for the moment webbed and orange. "I rushed back. Are you all right?" she asks him.
"Fine. Everything is fine. The front window has a crack," he says.
"Stress fracture," she says, "Did they call?"
He nods. "About fifteen minutes ago. I reported vibration and minor damage."
In their backyard there is a global positioning monument, a long probe sunk deep into the earth. Every thirty seconds one of five satellites registers the position of the monument, measuring the motion in scientific millimeters. There are hundreds of them, up and down the state. She and Ben get a tax credit for "the friendly use of land." And every time there's an event, the phone rings. "Just checking in."
When she stands near the monument, when she focuses on it, she can feel the satellite connecting, a gentle pull for a fraction of a second, a tugging at the marrow.
"There are footprints," Ben says, pointing out the press of a paw on the loamy ground behind the house. "I'm thinking dog or deer."
"Mountain lion," she says, bending to sniff the print, pressing her hand into the dirt over it.
Ben takes a dry towel and rubs her hair—at the roots her hair is fluorescent orange, the rest is brunette. The color changes according to her mood, or, more accurately, her emotional temperature. The only way she can disguise her feelings or not look like a clown is to dye her long locks. "Are you especially frightened?"
"The tremor threw me," she says. "Do I need a dye job?"
He nods. "You're bright orange."
She is cleaning her brush, her comb, saving the strands, spinning and weaving a Technicolor carpet.
"Did you get out today?" She notices that all the grocery bags on the counter are from iDot.com, the online food store—type in your list and your groceries are at the door within an hour.
"The pollen was high," he says. "The air was bad. I stayed inside, working. I made you a wonderful puzzle."
Ben is perfecting a kind of time-sensitive material, a puzzle that shifts so that the image changes as you are piecing it together. Every day he downloads photographs and turns them into something new. This time it's a picture of the sky at twilight, a single cloud. As they put the pieces together, the blue deepens; it becomes an image of the night sky and, as more of the pieces fit, a small plane flies across the sky, moving silently from piece to piece.
In every room there is a clock; Ben likes listening to the tick, tock, tripping of the hands as he travels from room to room, as sound shifts, time bends. He runs her a warm bath and sits by the edge while she soaks—ever since the fall in the well, she can't bear to be in water alone.
"Benjamin, are you still thinking you can stop time?" she asks as he washes her back.
"I'm working on it," he says.
"How well do you know me?"
"Very well," he says, kissing her. Her skin is the skin of youth, of constant rejuvenation, delicate, opalescent, like mother of pearl.
"Is there a beginning or an end?"
"No beginning or end in sight—infinity."
Out of the bath, he wraps a towel around her.
He presses his mouth to her skin, telling her stories.
Her heart races, the watch on her arm ticks faster. She begins to shift, to change; first she is the coyote, then a zebra, a mare, and a man. Her bones are liquid, pouring. She is laughing, crying in ten different languages, barking, and baying. His hands slide over her skin, her coat, her fur, her scales, her flippers and fins. He is sucking the toes of a gorilla, kissing the ears of a seal. She is thick and thin, liquid and solid.
They are moving through time: lying on pelts in a cave, in a hand-carved bed in a palace, nomads crossing the desert, calico pioneers in a log cabin, they are on a ship, in a high rise, on the ice in an igloo. Their cells are assembling and disassembling. They are flying through history. She is a cloud, vapor and texture. She is rain and sky and she is always and inescapably herself.
"Is that still you?" he asks. "I never now if you're really there."
"It's me," she says, sliding back into herself. "In the end, it is always me."