“It will be a time when there is as much life behind you as in front of you,” he had said, carefully packing his dress socks into an old suitcase. “You’ll be forced to make decisions you never thought you’d have to.” Peck’s father was cryptic and dully enigmatic as a rule, but looking back on his childhood, he always assumed this was his father’s way of saying goodbye, an admission that he couldn’t help himself from leaving. “It’s something like a light bulb going off,” he had said, snapping his fingers, startling Peck into paying attention. “And it runs in the family.”
After a time, life without him had become normal, and most concrete memories of his father faded. Peck’s mother buried every family photo in the backyard after the “Dear Jane” letter arrived. Once Peck started his own family, he rarely thought of his father at all.
On his thirty-eighth birthday, Peck wakes up alone. It’s almost noon. In the bathroom, reaching for his toothbrush, groggy, he sees no reflection in the bathroom mirror. His hand—the skin, hairy knuckles, gnawed fingernails—is gone. The toothbrush floats in midair. Stumbling, he pulls down the shower curtain, back-ending into the old porcelain tub. Anna had begged for the claw-foot kind, he remembers, just before the back of his skull connects with the scalloped edge.
The previous spring, he’d lost his way with a young, unremarkable office girl. He, too, had become unremarkable at middle age, but this was his expected trajectory. She was already soft-focused, blurry around the edges, and wasting the commercial viability of youth. He figured no one would remember her once she left the room, let alone think affair. She was so far beneath him in the company hierarchy. There were the same old motions—glances, quickened pulses, anything to combat the fluorescent bloodlessness of the office—but this time, instead of just whiling away the daydreams of fucking her, or maybe a quick jerk in the bathroom stall, he’d actually done it. People whispered. It got around. When she got promoted—and he wasn’t even her supervisor—that was the beginning of the end. Security stood waiting to escort him out of the building while he filled a cardboard box with what they’d let him take home. He was not allowed to touch his computer.
He tried to remember where it had started. The Sales and Production team mixer? That all-nighter they spent in the cubes, trying to come up with a viral campaign to save some fucking fast food conglomerate? He remembered the one hard place on her body: where her ribs showed between her breasts. He could not recall the moment he’d allowed himself to be ruled by whatever desire crossed his mind. When he pulled into his driveway, he had no memory of leaving the office.
His return home in the middle of the day surprised Anna. After a week of confessions, each more drunk and pleading than the last, she left for Erie, where her parents were from. She said the lake-effect snow blankets everything. “It’s cold and muffles all the sound,” she had told him once, when things were better, “Every time you go outside, it’s a little like death.”
He wakes in the bathroom and gingerly probes his wounded head. The pain makes him dizzy; his stomach sours, and he vomits. He wipes his mouth. He feels no numbness. With care, he stands and steadies himself against the wall. The only sound is of his raspy breathing and dripping water until the phone rings. It could be her.
He prays it will keep ringing as he slowly makes his way downstairs. The cordless is next to the front door. He picks it up.
“Is this John?” the voice on the other end asks. The voice is male, old, with a tickle of phlegm.
Peck grimaces as the pain blooms fresh in his head. “Who is this?”
For a moment there is the sound of indecision on the other line. The man pauses.
“This is your father,” he says, finally. “I called to see if it’s happened.”
There is a loud knock at the door. Peck crouches to make sure no one sees a phone hovering in mid-air.
“What do you mean ‘This is your father,’” he whispers. “I haven’t seen my father in thirty years.”
“I called to see if it’s happened yet,” the voice says again. Peck sinks to the living room carpet, pressing his face into the phone. His ear is numb and hot—phone ear Lindsay, his daughter, had called it—and the flame-retardants in the rug make his skin itch. He curls into the fetal position.
“Happened yet?” Peck asks.
“It’s your birthday, right?”
Peck had forgotten. “Yeah,” he says. “It is.”
“I wanted to tell you to expect it, but I was late,” the man says. “I can’t meet you, though I’m not sure it would make much difference. You need to know a few things.”
His brain is crowded with questions. He fidgets on the living room floor. The knocking will not stop. He can see the tops of green hats through the glass at the top of the door. Girl Scouts.
“Thirty-eight years. Are you—can people see you?”
“I can’t see me,” Peck says.
“Me, your grandfather, your great-grandfather, your great-great-grandfather, all the way back. It happened to them. It happened to them, and now it’s happened to you.”
He hears a package being laid on the front porch and the sound of footsteps walking away.
“I can’t ask you to forgive me for leaving. Did you marry? Have children?”
“You will let them go in time. I don’t know if there is such a thing as luck, bad or good. I only have one piece of advice.”
“Since you will be naked most of the time, move somewhere warm. Happy Birthday.” His father hangs up. Peck stays on the floor, the phone clutched to his chest, listening to the only sound in the house, that of his own breathing.
He hadn’t meant to be so casual and should have known his limits, the thresholds he should not cross. He told Anna about the girl at the office, but it wasn’t until he admitted his regular visits with the neighborhood prostitute that she packed up and left. She was unable to identify with his appreciation for Nina’s particular abilities.
Pacing in front of the bedroom mirror, unable to stop watching for the suspended-in-air boxer shorts, he decides to see Nina tonight; Nina, who will know what he should do, lives down the cul-de-sac and is waiting for her eight o’clock. Her website has a scheduler. He disrobes. The night air is cool against his skin. He sniffs himself. It’s been three days since he last showered. On the doorstep he finds the small tower of cookies the Girl Scouts left him, alternating fuchsia and green boxes. A breeze tickles him in places he’s not used to feeling breezes, and he covers himself. He chooses the Thin Mints and makes his way to her house, stumbling through hydrangea bushes and his neighbors’ tightly manicured lawns.
Dirt gets between his toes, and it feels good, calming. The neighborhood is quiet. Soon he is in front of Nina’s fortress of bricks with honeyed light spilling from the dozen French casement windows. He knocks. While he waits, he adds up the calories in the whole box of cookies, and Nina opens the door. She peers outside, dressed only in a pale yellow terrycloth robe.
He and Anna were young, just married, and the honeymoon was a discount trip to South Florida, to a stretch of beach Peck never bothered to learn the name of, sand unsettled and exhausted by waves of college kids. The smell of old margaritas in the air. He remembered her, the way she seemed quieter all of a sudden, and he had said, We should move down here, be bums. Live off what we catch from the ocean. Her hair stuck to her naked shoulders, it was so humid. Anna told him she was pregnant, that she loved him. They walked, holding hands, down the shore, stepping over beer cans and tattered ends of wet cigarettes. She asked him to please keep talking, that she loved the sound of his voice.
That was always a problem, he thought. The whole time, the years of waking up and going back to sleep and everything in between, he held his tongue. No stories from work, no opinion on what should be eaten for dinner. When he’d overhear his wife and daughter talk, them not knowing he was around a corner or just out of eyesight, they never talked about him, because he wasn’t really there.
Nina lets him sleep in the basement. The next morning she’s gone to run errands. Peck stays behind and makes use of her shower. Her bathroom aches of soft feminine smells, extracts, oils, and herbs. He imagines his wife showering, her back to him. It’s a warm and comforting memory. He knows Nina will expect him to be gone—but then there’s only an empty house to go back to—and he takes his time drying himself. He wanders around Nina’s house, leafing through books, straightening photos on the wall. She finds him a few hours later; the only indication of his presence is a deep ass imprint on her leather sofa. Most of a cake she’d been saving for her husband’s return from Taipei is gone. She can see the crumbs sitting on his invisible belly, seeming to hover in midair.
“I’m booked solid today. You should entertain yourself—maybe go home and think, John.”
“That sounds like fun,” he says. His father’s phone call rattles around in his brain. He sticks around, hiding out in the basement, not wanting to go back to the silence of his own home. His house is too much like a shitty museum, a junkyard of the past. The quiet keeps him awake.
The next morning at Nina’s, he listens for her first appointment to leave and softly creeps up the stairs to the kitchen. She pours a cup of coffee.
“Got something for me to do?” he asks her. “Chores? Need anyone haunted?”
“Go home,” she says. “Or go spy on someone other than me.”
He returns to her basement, but her over-theatrical moans and ohgods are too distracting. He is curious, though, and a little horny. He goes out to spy on the neighbors in the cul-de-sac, hanging in windows and watching the unsuspecting families bathed in reflected blue light of computers and televisions.
A particularly nasty fight at the Schmidts’ ends in harried make-up sex, and he sees through the window the Schmidts’ youngest boy walk down the hallway and knock on his parents’ bedroom door. He’s crying. The Schimdts dress quickly and comfort the child. Upset from a nightmare, probably. Mrs. Schmidt kisses her son’s forehead and lets him cry. Peck thinks of his mother, the last time saw her. She had been a quiet woman even before his father left, but the abandonment gave her a laconic hardness that kept her son and other men at arm’s length.
He had graduated and come home to find her sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of sherry. She reached into the purse she kept hanging from the kitchen chair, pulling out three wrinkled dollar bills.
“Congratulations,” she said and dropped the money onto the kitchen table. He looked at it and then at her. He pocketed the cash and went out drinking with his friends. They talked about the beaches in Florida and California, the places they’d head to once they’d saved enough money. They talked of school and of women. Peck drank until he could not stand and fell asleep in his mother’s car, waking up to a police officer’s baton tapping against the windshield. He drove home in a stupor and found her where he left her, in the kitchen, newly cold and still.
Mrs. Schmidt takes her son out of the bedroom, the boy now pacified and rubbing his eyes. Mr. Schmidt stands, shoulders rounded, gut so hairless and shiny it looks polished, and turns off the light.
Tired of the spats over messy bedrooms and lost remote controls, he dedicates his time to making mental maps of the houses with the most beautiful women and easiest-to-open windows. Placing his hand on his belly—shrinking now from lack of regular meals—to steady his breathing down to near silence. He’s never meditated, but the calm he feels while watching Cassie Lindquist, mother of the high school quarterback, dry herself from her shower would rival that of any Buddhist monk. No breath or sound, just the throb of his heart in his throat. He quietly masturbates, his stomach churning, while in the far corner of her bathroom.
Lying on the sofa in Nina’s basement just before sleep, it’s Cassie he sees, with her towel turban perched so perfectly on her head. How expertly she crafted that terrycloth headdress, how every woman seemed to have an inborn ability to construct one. Anna would wear hers while standing in the bedroom in front of the open closet, choosing what to wear that day. He stifles a sob. He picks up the basement phone and calls Nina’s cell. She answers. There is a man’s voice in the background.
She whispers. “Are you calling me from my own basement?”
“It’s like in those horror movies,” he says. “The call is coming from inside the house…”
“I’m busy,” she says.
He hears a door shut. She says, “Listen, you’re bad for business. I know somebody, a truck driver. He goes up there, up to Buffalo or wherever on route, and he’s half-deaf. You could probably stow away, and he’d never know the difference.”
First he thinks of Anna and then of Lindsay. Nina says, “Are you still there?”
“I guess I should thank you,” he says after a pause.
“I need the basement on Monday for a client,” she says. “Don’t go overthinking it.” She hangs up before he can respond.
The tractor trailer’s cab smells like farts and stale cigarette smoke. Peck slips in the back of the cab while Nina entertains the driver—HAPE stitched in big letters across the shoulders of his nylon jacket. Peck crouches and keeps his breathing low and quiet. Hape ambles out of Nina’s house with sloppy satisfaction, adjusting his pants, gets in, and starts the engine.
The trip is long, but Hape’s good company, even if he doesn’t know he’s being company. He sings along to old country songs about the road, lost love, and betrayal. Peck’s toes go numb in the cold. In Pennsylvania, he drowses in the cab, lulled by the roar of the road. “What are we going to do?” Anna had asked when he told her about being fired. Her mouth had tensed, little lines forming around it like parentheses. She leaned in expecting an answer. He knew he could use this moment to throw himself down, beg for all forgivenesses, hatch new plans of survival, fidelity, re-forging of trust. He had once faked a habit of forgetting things—her birthday, dance recitals, his keys—to break the monotony of her expectations. Oops, he’d say, I guess it slipped my mind, and he’d watch for the flash of anger across her face. Well, she always said, swallowing the hurt. That’s fine. Maybe we’ll go out on the weekend? He felt trapped in a present-tense haze. The moment had expectation in it, and that was different enough. He’d said, his throat dry, I’m doing all I can.
He and Hape pass billboard after billboard, and he counts the miles to Erie.
In early morning, while Hape naps in the parking lot of a closed Wal-Mart, Peck rifles through dirty clothes and McDonald’s food wrappers and, once he finds what he’s looking for, prays no one will be out early enough to see a pair of tube socks slipping down an icy Erie sidewalk. It is dark, and the cold has shriveled him to the tightness of a closed fist.
He finds the house, the address he’d found online memorized. Managing to open a locked basement window, he slips inside. He crawls upstairs and hovers over the heating vents until his frozen backside sizzles. He explores the house, but soon they are home, carrying grocery bags, talking about their day. He crouches at the top of the stairs, stifling an involuntary gasp when he sees them. They do not notice. Lindsay admits to a B minus on her geography test, and Anna promises to help quiz her on state capitals. He wipes away wetness from his eyes—since the long truck ride, they weep constantly. The dryness? The change in climate? He leans hard on the bannister for support.
The sun falls, and his wife and child talk and watch television. He’s struck by how beautiful they are. Bathed in the light, they look like angels, he thinks. Bedtime comes; his daughter is told to brush her teeth. His wife settles in and flips through a novel, never settling on a page. She has long hands and elegant fingers, pearly in their whiteness. She’s wearing nail polish again. When she falls asleep, he watches her until his stomach growls. He makes his way to his daughter’s room, moving an inch at a time because the floor creaks. Her room is littered with dirty clothes and old stuffed animals. She sleeps deeply, her breaths slow and quiet. He brushes the hair from her eyes and watches until he’s too cold and the sky begins to lighten with the coming morning.
Hidden in the basement, he covers up with a pile of old comforters he’s pulled out of cardboard boxes and tries to sleep. What must be in his family to change them from visible men? A thin layer of dust covers everything, the door frames, the lamps and end tables. His wife must be too tired to clean.
He starts the next morning by dusting the bookcases. He leaves saltines smeared with peanut butter for his daughter, an afternoon snack. A few days later, Lindsay loses the last of her baby teeth, a nubby lower incisor, and he leaves a few dollars under her pillow. He sorts their mail, cleans the corners of spider webs. Wednesday afternoon he scares the meter man, shaking bushes and pelting him with gravel, running him off before he can take a reading. His little girl laughs while at the kitchen table reading comics. Anna hums awful old eighties songs. Maybe somehow he can get them free cable. The possibilities are as endless as the time he feels while alone, the time it takes for them to come home. Each day he longs for their return, anxious like a puppy. His grasp of time weakens, hours and days sliding around in his mind. He no longer pays attention to calendars. He reads his daughter’s comics while she’s at school. He laughs and covers his mouth; the sound echoes in the basement.
Anna asks his daughter if she’s been doing the dishes, and Lindsay says she has and asks for a bump in allowance. Some of her father in her, he thinks, and starts to draft a letter in his head, a letter for her thirty-eighth birthday, just in case.
His chest rattles like an old man’s, and he coughs into the crook of his arm. Always sickly. It’s spring, and the floorboards creak louder and louder. He curses his luck, the unfairness of it. One night, the crickets out in force, Peck thinks again of his father and of God. He’s wrapped in the old comforters in the basement, in the space between sleep and wakefulness. Two figures hover over him as white lights that bleach his vision. Peck sees his girls before him. In the last moments before sleep, he thanks everyone. His daughter. The girl at the office. His mother. He thanks Hape for the ride, Nina for pushing him away. Anna, sleeping upstairs. He tries to forgive himself. The weather starts to warm, but the nights still dip just to freezing, and in the morning the windows are covered in a thin frost. His face is wet. The snow, still clinging to the grass, is quiet, like an ending, just like she’d said.