Happy people are never lonely, Shya said.
Casey laughed, abruptly stopped, and glanced over at her summertime friend. Joy sat on the floor, fingering an ancient brass candelabrum. The candlelight flashed across her face—ten years younger than Casey’s own—and gave her an attitude of depth Casey knew was an illusion. That’s why she’d chosen her for a summertime friend, after all: her boozy, easy indolence. Her beauty. Joy smiled at Casey, and shadows spiked upward from the corners of her mouth.
“We’re already not lonely,” Joy said.
For a moment, the only sounds were what muffled bangs and whoops the party could push through the small room’s windows and walls.
“Ah,” Shya said, “but are you happy.”
Shya was a tall, angular man, a serious man. And perhaps because it stood out from the soupy mid-seventies languor of mid-coast Maine—a place, increasingly, of escape, Casey felt, and not of rebellion or belief—Casey found herself attracted to this severity. Nonetheless, he wasn’t going to ruin her night.
“What does that mean, anyway,” she said harshly. “Happiness.”
Shya had been sitting on a great white beanbag chair, and now he stood, his long body shooting up like a beanstalk. “That strikes me as one of the saddest things a person can possibly say.”
Casey looked at the floor. This had been happening a lot, lately: she’d make a comment meant to be taken lightly, a joke, maybe, only to find that her own humor had betrayed something more serious, more personal. She lit a cigarette.
“Listen,” Shya said, looking directly at her, “I think the technology would be really helpful for you, for both of you. Come with me to Boston and sign up for a session. I know the training is expensive, but trust me: if you decide to come, the money will follow. It always does. That’s one of the amazing things about est.”
Shya left the two women alone, and they giggled to relieve the pressure, the stress of his certainty. Casey stomped around the room in a military march, and Joy made a comical frown, then sucked her cheeks into a fish-face. Joy had graduated from Smith two months ago and had hopped a bus to Maine to find community. Casey had found her sitting in front of the Co-op in Camden with a cardboard sign that read “Will Share The Load” under a finger-painted peace sign. She’d immediately fallen for Joy’s smooth, open face, her long bare legs. She’d given her a carrot and a ride.
They collapsed together onto the floor and stared at the vaulted ceiling, listening to the party hold steady outside. “That guy’s heavy,” Joy said.
Casey gave Joy’s hand a squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re not.”
She felt Joy stiffen.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said the girl.
Casey closed her eyes. Joy was very sensitive about her intelligence. “Joy,” she said, but then went silent, unsure whether she should apologize and admit what she’d meant, or feign ignorance, and hope Joy would forget and move on.
In her indecision, however, she remained silent too long.
“Great, Case. Thanks. You know, I can be heavy if I want to.” Joy got up and grabbed her empty jam jar, then paused at the door. “Did you get a degree in Women’s Studies? Did you even go to college?” She stormed down the hall.
“I’m sorry, Joy,” said Casey to an empty room, then smiled to herself. This is exactly what happened when you got crushed out on a child. It was thrilling, in a way. You had to watch your words, try to stay one step ahead of the constant shifting of moods, the raw, complex architecture of an urgent, burgeoning heart. It made her feel wise by comparison, but also somehow concentrated, dense. Like coal. It put her in her place, she felt. Wasn’t that a good thing?
Casey blew out the candles and stood in darkness, watching through the window the revelers, the endless revelers. A sinewy, circumspect black man named Jasper had built a fire early in the afternoon, had kept it going all evening, and was now spreading its coals out into a rectangle about ten feet long. A number of people, most of them strangers, had gathered around, and were taking off their shoes. They were going to walk across. When he’d proposed this the day before, he’d told everyone at the house—including Casey—not to worry. He assured them he knew what he was doing. And though it had been an exceptionally dry summer, he was given permission after only minimal discussion. Everyone always knows what they’re doing, Casey thought now, transfixed by the throbbing orange glow of coals. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get burned.
Casey heard Joy’s high-pitched laughter in another room and went to find her. She wouldn’t be forgiven without an apology, of course, and she wanted to give it, but more importantly, she’d begun to feel protective when Joy flirted with men. She walked down the half-dark hallway, past men sitting with their legs splayed across the floor, and long-haired men swaying like the tops of trees. The house was filled with men. And for the most part, they were harmless. There was Jeffrey, a plump, soft-spoken son of ranchers who’d studied international relations at Johns Hopkins. There was Drew, with no schooling but a voracious appetite for learning about anything green. There were Chuck and Charlie, a young gay couple from New York living here on Chuck’s allowance. None of these men had anything to offer Joy. But the house was always open, testosterone pulsing through like a punctual train, men making it a midway point between vaguely articulated origins and ends. And perhaps it was because Casey had, in her day, nearly been swept up in many such inchoate dreams that she felt Joy in danger of doing so too, of sacrificing her own path for someone else’s.
In the kitchen, Casey found a couple sitting on the floor by the icebox, holding hands and staring forward with a gravity she took to be profound and recent loss. The woman, a clean, braided thing in a patchwork skirt, nestled into the arm of her partner, a slightly older man with weathered skin beneath his full beard. They barely looked up as she entered.
“Is everything okay?” she asked. It was her house, after all, and she should know if something had to be done.
“Okay?” said the young woman. “We just met, and it’s the most amazing thing.”
“My name is Beaux,” said the man.
“And I’m Raine. Don’t you see?”
“There’s nothing to do,” the man went on, “but surrender to it.”
Casey grabbed a bottle of wine from the counter and walked back down the hall. At the other end she found Charlie and Chuck sitting before the color television Chuck’s parents had given him for Christmas. Relieved to find familiar faces, Casey sat down beside them on the lumpy corduroy couch and silently passed the wine around. They were watching an episode of Donald Duck, and the volume was loud enough to cut through the ruckus outside, which meant the duck’s scrambled egg voice fairly rattled the floorboards. Charlie caught her up on the action.
“This one is with Chip ‘N Dale,” he said. “It’s called ‘Working for Peanuts’.”
Sure enough, the two chipmunks were trying everything they could to steal peanuts from an elephant, with only poor, hapless Donald to stop them.
“What do you think, Case,” Chuck said, pointing at the cute, misanthropic rodents. “Brothers, or homos?”
A short man in leather chaps came in the front door, caught it before it slammed, winked, then paraded by them slowly with his chest pushed forward, as if he was walking underwater.
“You guys seen Joy?”
Chuck passed Casey the wine and shook his head conspiratorially, or seemed to. She couldn’t be sure. Chuck was often difficult for her to read, but she usually assumed it was because he was from New York. New Yorkers always seemed a little cagey outside of the city, as though at any moment they’d be receiving news that they had to return. She decided to change the subject.
“So,” she said, “do you think Chip N’ Dale got their name from the furniture, or vice versa?”
She looked to the men, both handsome and too well groomed, expecting at least a chuckle. Instead she got serious consideration.
“I’m betting the chipmunks came first,” Chuck said, turning toward his lover. “That show’s old as dirt!”
“I don’t know,” said Charlie. “So was Walt Disney. Did you know he was friends with Salvador Dali?”
Casey stood up with the bottle and left them to figure it out. She wondered if she’d have known about Chippendale herself had her father not worked with wood. What makes common knowledge common? Still, she found their ignorance depressing, and let the screen door slam behind her.
The house had been her father’s and had served as his studio for more than twenty years. Casey took a broad survey of the yard: the cars and motorcycles parked on the grass, the two separate bonfires surrounded by shirtless women. The flickering light threw strange shadows against the old oak and maple trees surrounding the house, giving what her father would call “motion” to the scene. Her eyes danced from place to place as each was kissed by visibility and then shrouded again by night. Her father had struggled his entire adult life toward the making of something beautiful, and though history had yet to officiate his success, he’d certainly succeeded in finding a beautiful spot to struggle.
And here it was, with hippies and homos living on it like a fungus. She hoped he’d approve, even though he may not have understood. Casey wasn’t even sure she herself understood. Who were all these people? Why were they here? Was it the pleasure of life; were people simply chasing pleasure? Asking such a question during a party was of course a great way to beg the question. Casey could feel herself growing drunk and took another swig from the wine bottle. When she grew drunk, she grew despondent, and when she grew despondent, she wanted to drink. “O Fortuna!” she cried, and threw the empty bottle to the grass in a burst of overblown theater.
She stood above the bottle and was raising her foot to crush it, when someone nearby called her name and told her to stop.
“Either you won’t break it and you’ll fall over,” the man said, “or you’ll break it and cut your foot.”
She turned around, and from behind a big blue pickup walked Jasper, carrying in one hand a big tin bucket of water. He approached her slowly, as though to a startled fawn, and slowly bent to pick up the bottle. He held the neck lightly between his fingers and nodded at her to follow him, which she did. As they made their way around the house, Casey wondered if he recognized her as the owner or even as one of the people he’d sought permission from for his stunt out back. Then she wondered why she was wondering this and felt guilty. Here he was, reaching out to her, unbidden, and she could think of nothing other than the details of their connection, and of power. She tried to focus on his striking bald head, his narrow shoulders and the cotton, high-water pants tied round his waist with twine. On anything but herself.
“The ceremony is about to begin,” said Jasper, as if obliging her need. “And I like to have water nearby.”
“Water is goob,” Casey said. Did she just say goob? The wine was hitting her all at once, it seemed. She struggled to keep a straight line.
They curved around an apple tree, and Casey could feel the warm air before she could see the coals. Jasper stopped a few yards away and put down the bucket and the empty bottle. He picked up a rake, and as he continued on, Casey stayed. There were a couple dozen people gathered around, holding hands, heads bowed. And as Jasper drew the rake across the coals they glowed anew, lighting peoples’ faces from below so that everyone seemed to be leaning forward, leaning away from the darkness behind them. The scene was vaguely eerie and brought to mind an absurd film about flesh-eating zombies she’d been dragged to years before. Jasper put his instrument back down and stood at one end of the burning path. His skin shone in the light, and Casey tried to focus on him but her vision was blurred, his face kept escaping.
“The person who can walk across these burning embers,” he intoned, “can accomplish anything they wish.”
Then he stepped forward and walked slowly but steadily to the other side.
“Fear is the enemy,” he said. “Fear is what burns.”
He returned to where Casey was standing and dipped his hand in the bucket, cupping a taste of water to his mouth. She watched him drink, then looked back at the coals. A woman, next to walk, had stepped forward. It was Joy.
Casey tried to shout out, but felt a hand over her mouth.
“Shhh,” Jasper said quietly. “If you break her concentration she could be hurt.”
Casey squirmed out of his grip and he let her go, but brought a finger up to his mouth, reminding her to remain silent. Casey stepped forward. She wasn’t sure she wanted to remain silent. Joy could be hurt if she didn’t say something; why would she let her take the risk? Why would she let her go? She stepped right up to the edge of the coal path, swaying in the drunken heat like a mirage. Joy’s eyes were closed, and she had a small smile on her face, the kind she wore when listening to music or tasting something sweet. It was the smile she wore when they’d first met, riding in Casey’s car with her feet on the dash, crunching a still-dirty carrot like it was her first food in days.
Casey woke up under the apple tree, a thin Mexican blanket above her and a folded shirt beneath her head. She lay there for a moment, watching the morning sunlight dazzle the squat tree’s upper leaves, and tried to remember making the decision to sleep outside. She sat up slowly and stared at the black patch of coals, wet with dew. She’d been more than a little worried that the dry summer grass would catch fire, but the burn seemed to have stayed within its little limits. She looked toward the house, at the windows of her bedroom overlooking the yard, at the open kitchen window further down the side, at the siding, falling off.
It was no use.
There were people, in ones and twos and threes, sleeping at various points around the house and in the beds of pickup trucks. Most were asleep. Casey spotted Jasper’s blue truck and walked over. Two blankets like the one she’d awoken under lay spread out in the back, but Jasper wasn’t there. Casey deposited the blanket he’d given her, along with the shirt, and went inside. Chuck and Charlie were asleep before the television, still on but now silent, and the man with leather pants lay on his stomach on the floor, his head surrounded by empty beer bottles like a green glass halo. The house was quiet except for some low murmuring from the kitchen, a pan scraping the top of the range, and Casey crept down the hall. Before she reached the kitchen, however, Jasper entered the hall and smiled, seeing her.
“I’m going to get some scallions from the garden,” he said. “You want some eggs?”
“Coffee,” Casey croaked.
In the kitchen, she found Joy chopping a carrot beside the stove, where a big pad of sizzling butter skated around the bottom of the cast iron pan. She seemed light on her feet and she was humming tunelessly. Casey knew immediately that she’d slept with Jasper.
“Morning,” she said.
Joy looked up and smiled. “Good morning, silly.”
Casey poured herself a cup of coffee, and Joy poured chopped carrots in the pan. Casey sat at the small table by the window and watched Jasper stepping carefully through the small square garden, bending at the waist like a dancer. What did Joy mean by “silly”?
“Joy,” Casey said cautiously, “did I let you cross the coal last night?”
Joy turned from her pan, and still smiling, shook her head, softly, almost sadly, as though in wonderment at the folly of youth. She did not answer. Casey took another sip of her bitter coffee to mask any distress her face might betray, and remembered being in that kitchen one day almost fifteen years before, speaking with her father about college. She’d just been accepted to RISD and was standing by the door, her father sitting where she was now, grimacing as she explained to him why she wasn’t going to go. The letter stood in her hand like a dove, and she was saying that the things she wanted to learn couldn’t be learned in school. Her father, who’d encouraged her to apply, who knew someone on faculty in the fine arts department, who’d perhaps even pulled some strings, was outraged, and as he held forth on the value of the structure RISD would provide, she remembered feeling so sad for him, so sad that he didn’t understand such plain facts about the spirit. It had been the beginning of the end of their intimacy, and she’d left soon thereafter, heading to New York City with a hundred dollars and a hunch.
Casey put her cup down hard on the table, making Joy jump a little. “I think we should go,” she said.
“Go?” Joy stirred the eggs, didn’t look up.
“To Boston. Let’s call Shya and just, you know, see what happens!”
Joy scrunched up her face, but didn’t answer before Jasper walked into the kitchen with a fistful of scallions and a sprig of thyme. He was wearing the shirt Casey had slept on, and it was unbuttoned, the smooth skin of his chest and stomach lurking behind it like a dark passage.
“Casey wants to go down to Boston,” Joy said, “with Shya.”
Jasper whistled. “That’s one heavy cat,” he said.
“That’s what I said!” Joy screeched, too loudly. Her eyes widened in apology, and she repeated in a whisper, “That’s exactly what I said.”
“He’s cool, though,” continued Jasper, turning to Casey. “That est shit is powerful stuff. It’s not that far off from fire walking, actually. It’s all about empowerment. Will to power, baby.”
“Jasper thinks I have a strong will,” Joy said.
“Will is a muscle,” he said. “You have to flex it, work it out, or it’ll just—” he raised a hand of pinched fingers to his mouth and blew into his palm, the hand exploding open, “—disappear.”
What was this, gym class for the soul? Casey was not interested in being spoken to like some starry-eyed coed. It may work in Jasper’s ceremonies, but it wasn’t going to work in Casey’s kitchen. She put down her mug. All the same, she realized she could take advantage of the parallel Jasper was trying to draw.
“I guess that’s true,” she said. “So maybe we should wait a while, eh Joy? Est might be a little advanced…” It was such a naked gesture that she avoided Joy’s eyes, embarrassed. It was so naked, in fact, that she half-hoped it wouldn’t work. She half-hoped Joy would see right through it.
“Interesting,” Joy said, cryptically. She scraped the eggs onto two plates and stood against the counter to eat.
Jasper joined Casey at the table. “So this was your father’s house?”
“His studio, yeah.”
“Studio, right. Cool. Studios are so exotic.”
“It wasn’t so exotic when he’d make me clean it every summer,” Casey said.
Jasper laughed, revealing a mouthful of egg. His eyes were vaguely yellow, she noticed, and she wondered if he was sick. Was he actually impressed by this, by her? It was difficult to tell. She looked at Joy, who watched them nervously, worriedly, as though envious of their growing bond. Clearly, there was far more going on in this room left unsaid than otherwise, though Casey supposed this was always the case and kept her mouth shut.
Joy sighed loudly, and it seemed like she was about to make an announcement when into the room marched the squat man in leather who’d been sleeping on the living room floor.
“Ah, there you are,” he said. His movements were quick, and he made eye contact with Casey and Joy, giving slight nods before, incredibly, leaning over Jasper’s shoulder and kissing him full on the mouth. “Hi, baby,” he said.
“Good morning, dear,” Jasper said. “I think there’s more eggs. Have you met our lovely host?”
Introductions were made. Gordon sat down at the end of the table with a plate of food and a small glass of water, and he and Jasper launched into stories about their respective nights, all but ignoring Casey and Joy, who sat quietly for a moment, glancing at one another sheepishly. Casey had made the wrong assumptions, of course, and she felt relieved because of it, but also a little guilty and small. And without Jasper’s attention, Joy seemed small too, though in a different way. Diminished. Finally it was she who walked over to Casey and tugged at her arm, nodding down the hall. Casey stood, smiled at the men, and followed Joy through the house and outside, where they stood in the full sunlight and stretched. It was warm, the dew was already dry, and people were pulling themselves off the ground and into their cars. Casey waved at a woman named Chris whose bookstore had gone out of business earlier that year. Twice Souled Tales.
“I’m sorry about last night,” Casey said.
“Let’s go to Boston.”
Casey was surprises by this, though she didn’t let it show. She was surprised and disturbed. She felt Joy lean on her shoulder, and realized that she’d closed her eyes. She left them that way, feeling the sun on her face, and considered her options. There weren’t many.
“Well,” Casey said, “there’s the money situation.”
“How much did Shya say it would be?”
“He didn’t; he just said it would appear if we decided to go.”
The two women stood there in silence, feet in the dry grass, and watched a small Jeep turn into the driveway. It was the mailman. He pulled over twice to let people pass by the other way, and finally pulled his Jeep right up to Casey’s feet.
“Hello, Casey,” he said through the open door.
“Hey, Rex.” Rex had been the mailman here for as long as she could remember, and he was old now, too old to deliver mail. Rumor had it they kept him on because he’d lost his wife and it was the only thing keeping him alive.
Rex climbed down slowly from the Jeep’s open door and handed Casey a medium-sized envelope. “I surely apologize,” he said. “This came for you yesterday, Casey, but I forgot about it, on account of it needing your signature.”
Casey signed a form and held the envelope with both hands as Rex climbed back up into the Jeep, slowly, then bumped back down the driveway and onto the road, where he was almost hit by a passing station wagon. The wagon honked and swerved.
After a moment of listening, of expecting Rex to hit someone else down the way, Joy said, carefully, “If that’s money, Case, I’m going to pee myself.”
“It’s money,” Casey said.
The envelope was from the furniture shop in Wiscasset that still carried a few pieces her father had made. They were fine, expensive, and didn’t sell often, but every once in a while a lawyer from Augusta or Portland would drive through and pick one up, fancying himself a collector. Casey didn’t know how much this check would be for, but she knew it would be enough to cover their trip to Boston, and instead of sharing Joy’s amazement—the girl was now stomping back and forth in the driveway, taking deep breaths as though they’d just witnessed a miracle—she took it in the cold, factual manner one receives bad news. She felt resigned. Remote. She clutched that envelope like she could strangle it to nothing. And when Joy started pulling her toward the car, she didn’t resist much, allowing herself to be led forward like a diffident kid at the prom.
They sat in the car, the envelope between them, and Joy told her they were going to Shya’s house, just to get more information. He didn’t live far away, after all, and didn’t have a phone. Come on, she encouraged, all they had to do was ask him how much it was, and then they could decide. Casey drove into battle.
It was barely noon, and already the temperature was over eighty degrees and rising. The windows of Casey’s Dodge Dart were open and the smells of summer permeated the car: the sappy and bright scent of fresh cut trees, the glossy bloom of wildflowers, the gritty matte of rising dust, and along with everything, a faint hint of smoke. The heavy car barreled through twisting roads, in and out of shadows and sun, and Joy’s arm swam out the window in the rush of air like a fish out of water. Casey pictured herself sitting at a desk with Shya standing beside it, yelling into her ear, a spiritual drill sergeant.
They came to a four-way stop at the top of a small rise, and for the first time they could see the source of the smoke, a field two hills over. She’d been on that hill before, and as she tried to remember when, a car pulled up beside them.
She turned to find a man named Bob she knew through the Co-op. He’d fought in Vietnam before moving to Maine and growing out his hair.
“Hi, Bob,” she said. “You know anything about that fire over there?”
Bob ignored her question. “Remember,” he asked, “when you told me about that guy named Shya?”
Bob was another serious man, and she’d always been attracted to the edge he brought to things, a certain quickness, though she’d kept her distance on account of a woman named Kay. She’d probably told him about Shya because she thought they’d get along.
“Actually,” she said, “we’re on our way to see him right now.”
“Well,” said Bob theatrically, “look no further!”
Then he reached down to the passenger’s seat and picked up a pillow. He turned the pillow around, and on the other side a small, pink face stuck out, wide eyed and stunned. It was a baby.
Casey looked into the slowly writhing pink thing swaddled in white cloth, and was suddenly overcome. This was what decisions looked like. It was delicate, dependent, and furiously beautiful. She felt something inside her give.
“Kay and I liked the name, so we gave it to our son. Can you believe it? I’m a father!”
She reached her hand through the window, trying to touch the small pink cheek, but she moved too slowly—Bob put his son back down, apparently just lying him on the bench seat beside him, and drove off, ecstatic.
Casey explained to Joy how she knew Bob, and forced herself to put the car back into drive. They were parallel to the smoking field, getting closer, and Joy had her hand out the window and her feet on the dash, and the sunlight curled up in her lap like a fat tabby cat.
“Look no further!” Joy repeated, like a radio announcer, and giggled. Then she said, “It’s so wild to think about everything that baby Shya has in store for it. He can’t even imagine it yet. It’s all just potential energy.”
Suddenly Casey remembered what the field was, and why she’d been there. It was old Patterson’s blueberry field, where she’d had her first job. It was between second and third grade, and her father had taken her there and picked her up every day for three weeks, until she’d earned enough money to buy a bicycle.
Casey turned at a crossroad and drove closer to the field. The smoke became thicker, overtaking other smells, and she could now see the short, quick flames licking the field, hovering just above it, or seeming to, moving slowly in all directions. Joy hummed to herself sweetly, like a dear, sweet child, and as they drew closer to the burning field Casey began to feel better. Joy was her summertime friend, and summer was more than half over.
They parked behind a white pickup on a road that ran along the top of the hill. A man wearing coveralls was standing, watching, his arms crossed. She’d never seen him before, but she knew immediately who it was by his long, thin face: it was old Patterson’s son. She told Joy to stay in the car and went to stand beside him. He was about her age, and his clean-shaven face showed no emotion.
“Controlled burn?” she asked, though she knew it wasn’t. The burns happened in spring, for summer growth.
He shook his head, almost imperceptibly, but said nothing, and together they watched the fire move lazily out toward the edges of the field, eating around the large boulders that had made it impossible for the field to grow anything else.
What had become of that bicycle?
After Casey had saved up enough money for the bike, her father had brought her into town, where she’d picked out a little pink one with white wheels and a white plastic basket. She thought now how proud she’d been on the ride home, waving to all the cars that passed, whether she knew them or not. And when they got home she stood the bike by the house, and before even climbing on it for the first time, marched to the end of the driveway and stood there at the road, perfectly alone, gazing up one way and down the other, trying to decide which way she’d go first.