Sic Transit

Robert Chibka

I. Beginning

After missing a connection in Cleveland and being rerouted through Buffalo, Michael Terringer had the interesting experience, over one Finger Lake or another, of being hit by lightning. That was how he phrased it to Margaret, anyway, waiting at the wrong gate as promised despite delay—a sight for sore husbands, all twinkly eyes and stray gesticulating hairs, charged by wool as if she'd been the one doing Ben-Franklin experiments. To be exact, the plane and not he had been struck, but interesting was le mot juste. Not, certainly, terrifying or the like; not even electrifying. An exotic dish you won't order again but seem no worse for having tried once.

Margaret slipped her arm through his and they set off for Baggage Claim, her hair all alive-O, curious strands perking up at his cashmere's mere proximity. "I want to hear all about it," she said.

All around them travellers tilted at the waist, game type-A torsos trying to impress on tired type-B legs a sense of urgency: onward to pullman or duffel, hotel or home. The Terringers negotiated Logan instead in an upright stroll, as if taking the air in the Public Gardens. His camel greatcoat, a Christmas gift from her two months ago, enhanced this effect of casual, possibly noble decorum. Here was a man who'd survived lightning, but did not stagger, neither did he lean; he walked, if anything, with a dignity less qualified, less pregnable, for his ordeal, arm in arm with this striking woman whose very hair could barely keep its hands off him.

"I missed the Cleveland connection," he began, "thanks to what they called 'an equipment problem' at LAX. 'No rush,' I wanted to say, 'please make sure of your equipment.'"

"Not the thing you want them l-a-x about," Margaret quipped. Her smile started high up on the undersides of the cheekbones, mouth's corners hoisted from above in a delicate block-and-tackle operation that charmingly displayed the integrated physics of the face. "Oh dear," she said suddenly, "were you fed, with the changes?"

"Yes yes," Michael assured her, "not well, but fed. I'm fine."

She squeezed his upper arm in hers, a sensitive spot through all those layers. "But your lightning . . ."

"Well, cutting to the chase," he said. "I knew even in the dark it was stormy. Those twirly police-cruiser lights on the wing lent a psychedelic air, but also brought old coastal lighthouses to mind. This sleety, snowy mix flew horizontal under the wing, alternating red-white-black. It looked like tarmac, a runway. I swear I checked to ensure my seatback and tray table were in the upright, locked position. Miles from earth, I made final preparations for landing."

"Of course, your own airspeed . . ."

"I suppose that would create the illusion, but I'd never noticed this phenomenon before. At any rate, what I heard was along the lines of a sonic boom." The memory engaged like a gear, downshifting his gait. "At the same instant this . . . sparkling . . . entity appeared, round, a neon tumbleweed. Ball lightning, the stewardess said. This crackling glow, like a skein of radioactive yarn. But, Maggie, inside the airplane!"

"No!" Clamping his biceps, triceps, tighter: sweethearts at a scary movie.

"Yes! In the cabin, on the ceiling, along the centerline of the fuselage! I was near the tail, saw the whole trajectory, first-class curtain to rear lavatory as if it ran on a track—zip zip zip, front to back to front—then gone. Poof. Like . . ."

"Lightning?" she prompted.

That smile again. Michael halted right there, in front of the closed-for-the-night Live Lobsters On Dry Ice hole-in-the-wall and kissed his wife dramatically, the kind of kiss that marks plot development, deserves a soundtrack.

A flight attendant purposefully wheeling a pilot case had to execute a quick evasive maneuver. "Happy to be home?" she asked with professional amiability.

"Oh," Michael fairly squeaked in delight, "Maggie, this is the woman who explained it. My wife: Margaret."

Elaine Tremaine flipped open her trenchcoat to flash a nametag like an FBI badge. A glimpse of the uniform, spiffy and patriotic, superseded her frivolous bouffant to lend her an air of capable authority: "It's not rare, as I told your husband. Most passengers don't even notice, unless they're looking at the wing or ceiling anyway and actually see it." Though he wished, in lieu of actually see it, she might have said something like establish direct visual contact, she was right: it went over their heads in both senses. The flight crew calmly canvassed the aisle, letting dormant fliers lie, offering explanation in private tones only to those who showed alarm. "I love people's reactions," Elaine went on. "Your husband had a wonderful look, quizzical more than frightened. Like a kid who just blew his first bubble, and it popped in his face."

Michael nodded eagerly. "That's right: startled but intrigued."

"Well, that's the appropriate reaction," she smiled, tilting her carry-on in deft transition to a parting posture. "These planes could take that kind of hit all day long, unless it knocked out some communications subsystem. Even if it did, commercial aircraft are chockablock with redundancy." Beaming as if redundancy were a cardinal virtue. "So welcome home,"—Elaine sought a proper name—"Margaret's husband." She winked and walked toward Ground Transport with the efficient stride of one accustomed to serving drinks at 30,000 feet, before Michael could introduce himself.

"So," said Margaret as Elaine's pumps clicked smartly away into background noise. Because this pleasant encounter, besides aborting a 16-millimeter kiss, had expressed them to the final destination of a story Michael was just getting off the ground. She slid her arm back under his and headed once again for Baggage Claim, where his thin garment bag dutifully made its solitary rounds, a stalwart sentry securing a perimeter. He plucked it off and waited for his (actually, Margaret's) tote. The carousel ran a slow empty lap or two, just going through the motions, before shutting noisily down.

In the cubicle devoted to Lost Or Damaged Luggage, an indifferent man with waxed mustachios produced a form with line drawings of every species of bag except Margaret's. Handlebars perky as a forced smile though a long day had cooked the surrounding face down to the texture of leftover Cream of Wheat, he showed little patience for the bag's unusual details: the loopy carpetbag handles; the tapestry stripe in tones of sand, olive, and spruce. The bag was purchased in Brazil; might they have a more comprehensive chart at the international terminal? Pinching his clip-on tie as if tweaking a nose, the man assured Michael: shape and size were meaningless, all they really needed was the stub number. He'd get a call when the item showed up, next plane in from Buffalo most likely, tomorrow a.m.. But the tag wouldn't match the manifest; it was his wife's, same surname but first name Margaret, same address, same phone. The man placed thumb and index at the center of his top lip and sent the digits in opposite directions a few times, like lights on a police-band scanner. "Sir: we got a tracer number, it's in the system, soon's you fill in estimated value of the piece here you can go."

Just hearing it referred to as a "piece" pained Michael. The contents were nothing: over-the-counter toiletries, soiled shirts, wingtips, withered dress socks, conference program, spare double-A's for the Walkman, a big bottle (double-bubble-wrapped) of Fire 'n' Brimstone Hot Sauce as a gift for Margaret. The contents didn't signify. But the container: irreplaceable, invaluable, historic. Margaret had fallen in love with this bag on their honeymoon in Rio. Amid the mad, boisterous revelry of Carnevál, they ducked down a side street to catch newlywed breath. There she saw the bag, slumped in a shop window as if it too had had enough hoopla for one day. Its homely indigenousness—"like clothing tossed over a bedroom chair," she said—brought tears to her eyes. Michael snuck out the next morning while she bathed, had it shipped to the States, where it made her cry all over again. She still called it her honeymoon bag. Take the honeymoon bag, she suggested a week ago; it's the perfect size.

"This bag," said Michael, "has inestimable sentimental value for my wife and myself. It must not be lost. No amount of money could . . ."

"Suit yourself," said the man with the Texas-longhorn facial hair. "If it don't show up, which it will, we're gonna need estimated value, is all." He glanced over the form. "Whoa, you switch lines at Cleveland?"

"I had to. I missed my connection. An equipment problem in L.A."

"Better file a report with Westar. Probably never introduced into our system at all. They'll have it: Terminal B. I'll file this, but Westar's who you need to dicker with, most likely, which won't happen anyway." He impaled the form on a spindle and preened his conspicuous feature, as if to say: having washed my hands of this matter, I dry them, for emphasis, on my mustache. "Thank you for flying Quadratic."

"I'm so sorry," said Michael, trudging to Terminal B. "I never should have taken your bag. Never should have let it out of my sight."

"Not your fault, honey. It'll appear in the morning. They deliver to the house, gratis. Not to worry. With all the computers these days, bags are never really lost, just lost track of."

Filled with remorse and self-recrimination, Michael hadn't the heart to point out that track of things is all there is to lose.

In Terminal B a similarly weary but clean-shaven man ran through a comparable routine, reaching the opposite conclusion: the Terminal C airline was, beyond doubt, the culprit. He leaned forward, dewy upper lip under fluorescence almost making Michael nostalgic for the handlebars: Just between the three of them and for future reference? Quadratic ranked second-to-worst among midsize lines, terms of bags lost per hundred thou passenger miles.

"A Westar equipment problem initiated this fiasco," Michael said.

"Mister," replied the functionary, "that's the complete extreme of being here nor there. Whoever has your article returns it. If I'm a betting man, I bet Quadratic, basing my decision on track record. Where you put your money's up to you. I'm just saying." He gave the form a final once-over and poked it onto his spindle. "You're done here. Thanks for flying Westar."

Michael might have had a thing or two to say about being a betting man, putting money down, but Margaret took his arm: "We've done what we can. Let's go, dear."

Leaving the terminal, Michael had a shocking thought: anyone—fellow traveller, career thief, one of these baggage fellows—might have plucked the honeymoon bag off that carousel. When they reunited after revolving severally into the cold air, he asked, "Didn't they use to check claim tickets? Before you could leave?"

"They did. Now just those signs: 'Many Bags Look Alike,' which wouldn't deter a larcenous flea. Cost-cutting move, I guess. Don't fret, darling, it'll show up."

A huddle of exiled smokers added their localized two-cents to the diffuse foulness of transit exhaust. "You know," he said, "regarding the aforementioned sonic booms?"

"You're right. We don't have so many now. I'm not sure we have any."

"You'd think," said Michael, "with planes going faster all the time, . . ."

"Search me," she said, then, hearing a possibility in the phrase, added, "Officer," and gave her lashes a bit of batting practice.

"With pleasure, Ma'am," Michael Groucho'd, twiddling an air cigar, an oblique echo of the Quadratic bagman's handlebar-twirl.

Her cheeks, chilly-pink like cocktail shrimp, initiated one of those fantastic smiles: "When we get home, Mister." Mae West rather then Margaret Dumont. Marvelous, how they could collaborate to salvage a mood despite setbacks. Michael, still working on a suggestive retort when they reached the Subaru, realized the moment had passed.

Once out of the airport, his saved-up conference anecdotes, first shadowed by lightning's glare, then dissipated in a grey buzz of forms and cubicles, returned readily enough. His paper had been well-received; as well, he thought, as any on the panel. Several participants—a Rutgers game-theorist, an epidemiologist from British Columbia, an urban planner based in one of the Kansas Cities, he forgot which but had it written down—requested copies. A lovely time with Jeff: drinks at the hotel, presumably authentic Mexican a cabride away. Jeff testified before a House Subcommittee (no, not gays in the military, silly; handguns). Always known he'd make a name for himself, hadn't they? And Beryl—yes, made the trip after all, that skin problem having resolved itself in the nick; no, she and Jeff managed not to run into each other—well, what could he say: Beryl . . . was Beryl.

Signs of deep fatigue after a three-day trip. It wasn't his style to settle for tautology (even one with such rich associations for his wife, who'd known Beryl to be Beryl for many years). Yes, very tired indeed; weary, even, a useful word at such times. Lights sweeping through the car in relaxing catenary arcs, a clear cold night, Maggie at the helm, steady as she went—he could welcome the briefest of catnaps, refresher for intimated homecoming festivities. Search me. What a gal. (He'd frisk her thoroughly, weary or no; nothing on her person would elude her frisky hubbadubdubby.)

"So," she said, taking a corner, bending lights in odd seagull swoops through the Subaru, "a satisfactory jaunt. All this, and lightning too."

"Not bad for a so-called business trip. But happy, as Elaine Tremaine noted, to be home." Yes: swoopy seagull sweeps, swishy loopy lights. Sleepy, sluggish, weary, woozy … Michael blinked rapidly, juggled his brains. "Assuming the honeymoon bag comes home, wagging its tag behind. But hey, Bo-Peep, what about you? How was . . . what happened? Anything?"

For response, Margaret tilted the visor and pinched the remote as she steered into the narrow drive. The garage yawned like an indolent hippo. Under the floodlight activated by their motion, her mane popped off henna highlights, scintillated benign lightning.

Michael dropped his bags by the door, shed cashmere onto davenport like a used snakeskin, ignored a molehill of mail on the table. He nearly forgot to remove his tie before taking a bow over the bathroom sink. He splashed, scrubbed, splashed, patted, muscles running the whole show, then assessed damage in a droplet-spattered mirror. Red splotches between the eyebrows, spreading from folds at the outskirts of the nose: distasteful, even ugly, but nothing a night's sleep couldn't remedy.

Margaret helped undress him, joined him under goosedown a minute later, nothing on but a smile-shaped stripe of silk marking a frontier between thighs and abdomen. Despite dog-tired, bone-tired, dog-bone weariness, proximity roused him to undertake the promised pat-down. "Just lie still, Ma'am." He probed about the elastic of her silken borderlands—"What have we here? Gonna have to hold you overnight, Ma'am"—and proceeded with the most minimal of strip-searches.

O Margaret O'Murray Terringer! Her mechanics thrilled him; he never lost sight of muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, working under the skin in complex concert with arteries, nerves, and, if you came right down to it, enzymes, neurotransmitters. Her very lymph, or the idea of it, made him weak in the knees, recumbency notwithstanding. No makeshift make-do instrument, her body, but a finely balanced, successful work, a triumph of evolution, sensible eating, regular exercise, and great good fortune. When, after politely waiting his turn, he came, Michael went light-headed, swoopy as streetlights in plate glass. In so few days he'd forgotten—always did, when away, absence making the heart grow foggier—how keenly, how utterly, he loved his wife.

"I'm glad that went so well," she said, curling against him like a question framed by a slightly larger one. Since he was tired, she must have meant. "Well," he concurred, holding the terminal l like a trapezist till the release point at arc's tail, "well." He saw one, so deep no reflection showed on the water's distant dark, and gathered from these and other signs that now he would sleep.

Her husband must have been further gone than Margaret realized when she chose to inform him of her intimate encounter with an alien while he was in Los Angeles. Los Angeles, he might have thought if more nearly awake, was that today?

Michael woke happy. He was, would be from now on, The Man Who Survived Lightning. A routine event for the Elaine Tremaines of the world, maybe; for him, magical, like parachuting, climbing Everest. After his paper on suburban overcrowding found so enthusiastic an audience, travel foulups arrived like lessons in humility: nothing for nothing. But clouds, like cashmere, could come elegantly lined: not only the literal cumulonimbus, but LA equipment, flightpath not taken in Cleveland, all had chipped in on this gift, this sense of thorough well-being. He woke chuckling the body electric, and rolled toward Margaret, who—like the honeymoon bag—was gone.

Dozens of small sounds attend the making of coffee: faucet's whoosh like a distant Interstate, stainless measure's choonk into beans followed closely by grinder's wow wow, whisper of fluted filter leaving the nest of identical fellows, and so on to the understated click that initiates a whole new train of brewing noises. Michael heard each discretely, or knew the sequence well enough to infer those too faint for hearing. It was early Cage, a wry minimalist masterpiece: Partita for Woman, Implements, & Beans.

He hurried to the kitchen to deliver a rave review: of coffee, marriage, life. Margaret gave his funny stick-'em-up hair her usual first-thing-in-the-day grin, then looked wary, cautious (or flirtatious, stalking-sexy, one of the two a tango takes).

"Sorry to wake you," she said without establishing direct visual contact.

"Not me," said Michael. "I'm grateful."

"Slept well?" She returned his good-morning peck in kind.

"Like a baby, a rock, a baby rock. I slept like a pebble, a twig." He poured juice, shivered at its sweet acidic bite. "Any word on the honeymoon bag?"

"Michael, the sun's barely up," she observed. "Give them a minute or two."

It was early; still last night where he'd risen yesterday morning, three hours earlier, three hours later. Remarkable, that he should be awake, alert, who last night hadn't energy to hang a coat in a closet, thumb through mail. Yet mustered ergs, he recalled to his smug satisfaction, for marital searches, conjugal seizures.

Halfway through his first mug of Margaret's good coffee, he caught his reflection wavering on the slick surface and thought: Well, went so well. "You know, honey, I didn't sleep like such a total log. I had this, such a, weirdest little dream."

Her eyebrows peaked like puptents, like napkins plucked at their middles by a magician prepared to reveal unexpected presence or absence. Nothing up my sleeve, thought Michael. Quicker than the eye.

"This is actually sort of funny." He guffawed like a dopey cartoon dog. "I must have been amazingly tired. After we made love—Gonna take you in to the precinct now, and so forth, hoo hoo—I dreamt you said you had sex with a Martian."

Margaret protested: It wasn't sex, exactly, and it certainly wasn't a Martian.

She was kidding, of course. Not her typical style, but Michael would play along.

If not sex, "exactly," what was it? Intergalactic fondle? Cosmic cuddle? Third base of the third kind?

"Sure you want to know?" That look, tentative or tango-ready, guarded or its exact opposite. (She could be laying groundwork for a new kind of pillowtalk: You be the alien. We'll call you Xokton Trebulon. Take me, by means I can never hope to fathom, lightyears into space, out of time as we know it. O Xokton! Beam me!)

"Of course I want to know," he said. "What touches you touches me."

He grinned. She didn't. Was she, after all, angry over the bag? She'd offered, urged it on him. But they hadn't discussed checking it; that was thoughtless of him.

"It was a gentle, rhythmic, I don't know, probing," she began, carefully. "I can see I won't be able to describe this well. What appeared to correspond was something very long, very narrow—opposite of yours in both dimensions." She looked at him reassuringly. "I mean extremely narrow, dear. Like a length of starched twine." Eye contact; cheekbones hoisting both ends of her mouth. "I'm unsure exactly what he did with it; I'm unsure, frankly, whether 'he' is the right pronoun. More like an ambient force field than any corporeal plugging-in. The experience overall I would call more . . . contemplative. Not muscular or sweaty or, or loud or even maybe moving at all. I mean dimensionally; emotionally, quite moving, but serene . . . different. I hope you'll understand that, Michael: not better, and I won't say worse: different."

Eyes averted, cheekbone pulleys poised in case a reprise of the smile proved necessary. Michael recalled what he knew about grinning behavior in primates: (a) aggression, like spitting, hissing; (b) submission, like bowing, scraping.

"Did he have a name, this guru of yours?" he asked dryly.

She looked at him now. "Michael, this isn't the easiest thing in the world. I'm trying to be honest, not to have secrets between us. To inform you seriously of something that took place in your absence." She turned her back to him.

"'Seriously,' Margaret? This is your idea of 'serious'?"

She turned her front to him. "It's what happened, Michael. Yes, I'm serious."

He poured a second mug and tried to resemble a man sipping thoughtfully. "Okay, seriously: did he have a name?"

A tiny snort of frustration, nostrils flaring with the expulsion, then relaxing. "Don't be ridiculous. You think he spoke English? He didn't speak at all."

"Well, first, they all speak English on all the Star Treks, even in the Delta Quadrant. Second, this transpired without benefit of language?" Their first night together was like negociating a contract; he'd wondered where they'd find two lawyers and a notary at that hour on a Saturday. "You went to bed with an entity, without prior discussion of groundrules? That part needs work, Margaret. That's out of character." His tone, so recently dry, now beyond moist: drenched, dripping, saturated, sopping.

"You think I'm inventing. Don't you? You think I'm kidding."

What manner of game was she playing this morning? (And last night; it started last night.) Seemingly, one calculated to dampen his triumphant return (with lightning bonus). But he'd never known Margaret to be jealous or spiteful in that way. He considered carefully, to avoid glibness; no, through eight years of marriage (and upwards of a decade before it), he couldn't recall a deliberate unkindness. Everyone who knew her agreed: she was almost preternaturally kind. "A good person," people called her in the earnest tones usually reserved, in their social circles, for irony.

Michael nibbled his tongue. "You made love with me last night. Why didn't you tell me this before . . . resuming relations?"

"I wanted you to know, first, nothing was changed between us. Was that wrong?" The question sounded frank, innocent; she hoped to be told, had her action been proper?

"You thought I'd be jealous, upset?"

"I didn't know how you'd react." She began to tidy in a careful, measured way, sponging the few drops of coffee he'd splashed on the counter, coaxing crumblets from the toaster's shiny top into its dark recesses. "I still don't."

"You're not alone in that," he said.

Years ago, before they were married, he'd confessed to Margaret that years earlier, he'd worked up an extravagant sophomore crush on Beryl, but hadn't acted or spoken on his feelings, out of shyness or fear of losing a valued friendship. He'd explained how the attraction faded to affection, making him that much happier for Jeff and Beryl when they fashioned themselves, with considerable difficulty, into a couple (and that much sadder three years later when the marriage dissolved). But last night, he'd only been able to report that she, Beryl, was herself, Beryl. Did Margaret think . . .?

He examined her eyes. "Margaret, did you have an affair? Someone from the bank, maybe? A deposit, a withdrawal, a little transfer of fungible assets? An instance of earth-bound infidelity?"

That word wounded her. "If I had, I hope I'd have told you that as candidly as I have this."

"Before or after going to bed with me?"

Had she ever looked more serious than she did at that moment, since the night they settled the terms of their initial coupling (which included, he'd not forgotten, a fidelity clause and a codicil, should that ever fail, obliging complete honesty)?

"Before, I would hope." She thought. "Yes, in that case, before would be the only right choice." She turned away, wavering slightly (hair, shoulders, small of back, tendons behind knees at chenille hem level, all so beautiful to him in this sudden access of vulnerability—in the manner of impressionist landscapes, insubstantial effects of breeze, tremulous light, rendered on dabbed hints of flora). "I didn't think of it that way, Michael, as 'an instance of infidelity.' I wish I could explain why this was so different."

He refrained from invoking the phrase a length of starched twine. Instead, he enveloped her in ambivalent arms. She sobbed in a way he found endearing. "That's all right," he said, "you had a little dream. Don't you think you just had a little dream?"

She stiffened. "Michael, no. I didn't have a little affair or a little dream. I had what I said I had. I thought you had a right to know. I thought you'd want to be apprised." She tugged lapels to restore her robe's symmetry, gave the belt a smart cinch and her hair one z-shaped shake, and left the kitchen.

"All right," he said, "consider me apprised." Too softly for her to hear (just as well; he himself didn't know if he meant it as a retort or a flat matter of fact).

Sipping thoughtfully, he could see three possibilities. One, Margaret was joking in some way that required her absolutely to deny it. Highly unlikely. Two, she was making a point, some obscure object lesson. Equally unlikely. Three, his wife had lost her mind.

II. Middle

Some jokes depend on remaining unrecognized as such until their punchlines. Michael had never known Margaret to appreciate a practical joke, much less plan or execute one; but a person, he guessed, could branch out, grow, change. And so the notion of an elaborate practical joke, though unconvincingly out-of-character, showed remarkable staying power. He can't recall when he gave it up; at no point did he say: I see now, not practical, no joke. Slowly, below the veneer of deliberate thought, he came to see: even if she kept a straight face till April Fool's, it couldn't be amusing that he hadn't gotten the point earlier. He had, immediately, and she'd denied it, repeatedly. A joke without punchline or point, then, one you could die decades later still puzzling over, the quintessence of deadpan. Or a phenomenologist's dream: the ultimate inside joke. But wasn't a joke a social phenomenon? Finally, regardless of anything she said, it couldn't be a joke simply because it wouldn't be a good one, and Margaret was far too clever to play such a bad one. He realizes this only in retrospect, realizes only that he's already realized it. And so the irrationally hardy idea finally yields to common sense.

Leaving two possibilities: the didactic and the lunatic. The didactic he soon recognizes as another version, really, of the ludic—just another labor-intensive, tone-deaf ruse, and equally unworthy of her.

Nothing else has changed. He keeps teaching classes, grading exams, doing his semi-lucrative modicum of consulting. She keeps assessing collateral, judging default odds, approving loans when prudent. He still shops, vacuums, does the dishes; she still cooks, dusts, sees to the trash. Every other Saturday morning, she brings the bills up to date while he compiles a list of provisions. He rewards this tradition of domestic economy with a fluffy biweekly omelet, the only remnant in their diet of yolks and virtually the only evidence that he can, for years did, cook. She laughs at his hair each morning, leaves an eighth-inch of coffee in her mug, replaces the toothpaste cap. He marvels at her hair each evening, drinks her last sip and deposits both mugs in the sink, lowers the seat when he's done his business. She continues to keep him apprised, announcing without fanfare her period's due date in case she should get moody (she never does); he continues to commiserate over cramps. He watches the same televised garbage as ever (his one vice); she has no more interest in it than ever. He does his 5K on the NordicTrack, she her Jazzercise, thrice weekly. They've always stayed atop things: his-and-hers car payments, tune-ups, check-ups, retirement funds, home maintenance. One prophylactic teakettle of boiling water bubbles down each drain weekly; the baking soda in the fridge is replaced monthly. Ice doesn't build up on sidewalk or steps. Nothing's changed but her embrace of this single highly localized delusion.

It's nothing like a monomania. She never brings it up—because it means less to her than to him, or more?—looks baffled when he does, as if his motives are beyond some pale she can see and he can't. She'd be delighted to let it recede into oblivion. But he often finds cause to take it out of storage, dust it off, ponder its species, function, significance, before replacing it exactly where he found it. So she'll address the topic as often as need be; not, he's to understand, because she wants to discuss it; because she owes him, she guesses, that much.

Soon it's the default setting of his discourse, like weather for the rest of us. Asked, What's it like outside?, we don't reply, What's what like outside? or I don't know, but it seems to like something out there; we gloss the unspecified it as "atmosphere." Similarly, his assumed referent is now (despite her insistence that it wasn't, exactly) "sex with an alien." She knows, for instance, what he means, and answers without hesitation, when, interrupting an unrelated silence midway through dessert a week after his return, he poignantly asks, Was there any resistance?

At first, yes, of course. She was frightened; she struggled, squirmed at least.

Now this makes sense. Violated, traumatized, she built a screen-memory. She herself wouldn't know it's false; needs to remember the ghastly facts to heal. And they've lost a valuable (the crucial!) week dancing around that fantastical cover-story. His fault. He should have known.

No, Michael. She stopped. Resisting, she means. Squirms turned to wriggles, wriggles to frissons. It became very pleasurable. She's sorry, but she enjoyed it.

But this is the classic male rape fantasy. No means why-not, try-again. It's the do-it-till-she-sees-she-really-wants-it philosophy. Gently, tenderly, Michael tells Margaret he believes that she was raped. Then, like most assault victims, understandably but wrongly, blamed herself; hence, . . .

She blamed no one, Michael. She consented. She can't help it if her experience happens to fit some familiar pattern, which she wishes in any case he'd refrain from calling a philosophy [she wants him to know this vernacular dig at her undergraduate major was not lost on her].

It's textbook, Margaret.

It is not textbook; it's her life. She's sorry if he's disappointed she wasn't raped, but theorists of the male psyche don't enjoy sole proprietorship over reality. There's always an appeal to fact.

Maggie, fact? An appeal to fact? Can she not hear how that sounds?

She regrets sounding crazy, or trite, or otherwise unacceptable. But, Michael, this is a topic on which she speaks with some authority.

All right, he respects that. But. Does she think it possible—one reads of such things—that what she experiences internally as deep conviction is a symptom, displacing the unthinkable? Can't she see how much more likely that sounds: the iceberg-tip of a recoverable memory? Her father? Her brother? Her mother?

Michael. Her family? Her mother? Really. Now who's sounding crazy.

She's not joining support groups, subscribing to newsletters, selling her story to tabloids. Shows no special interest in NASA or best-sellers that recount sightings or abductions. She doesn't stare moonily at the sky when she thinks he's not looking. In her sleep, does not cry out to Xokton Trebulon in passion or regret. Her libido appears undiminished.

One Saturday morning between flyers, Michael excuses himself to verify the cereal inventory. He looked in on their stock before sitting down; but with Sav-Mor running a sale on Nabisco brands, he realizes that he neglected to shake each box to determine how much is left. In the pantry, he tries recalling the words to Old Mother Hubbard, fighting interference from the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, and almost forgets to shake the cereal again. In fact, two boxes so large they have to lie on their sides in the cupboard are very nearly empty. Unluckily, one is a Post product, the other General Mills.

When he returns, she's puzzling over a gas bill whose therms don't want to add up (the discrepancy is January's "actual" versus February's "estimated" reading). She's almost done with the bills, twice already has made mention of their imminent omelet. Michael wonders—in a tone so studiously offhand as to be patently stealthy—if she's read any metaphysics lately.

For years, Margaret has genially put up with genial teasing on the subject of her undergraduate major. He once quipped that philosophy held the answer to all questions about her and none about anything else; odd that it didn't occur to him earlier in this connection. Her usual riposte—that he reverts to her undergrad training because he himself never escaped the campus environment, where bright college years maintain a more vividly relevant appearance than for those in the so-called real world—has a grain of truth, but not enough to stop him from making jokes that contain, in his view, a grain of comparable magnitude.

Symbolic logic and epistemology, goes the routine, did no harm. And granted, to grasp empiricism's power you must sample the superstitions it demolished; still, if a little learning's a dangerous thing, how perilous to sit through electives in World Theories of Cosmology, Neoplatonist Ontology, and Pure Reason. And a senior seminar too-cleverly called What Phenomenology Can Tell Us About What We Tell Phenomenology had to leave lasting scars. He sees in phenomenology a sort of souring of certain undeniable precepts: the vinegarization of common sense. Such studies made nothing, amounting in turn to everything, matter nearly enough, or way too much—here Michael generally tangles his syntax, but his point's clear: the inflated claims of metaphysics forever deflated those of reality.

His teasing's never threatened her; both know she hasn't a mystical bone in her body, a spiritual cell in her brain. She works with amortization charts, compound-interest tables; maintains a steady, even formidable moral stance without recourse to divinity. Metaphysical infatuation is a fondly laughable slice of her past, like a Catholic upbringing, like hairdos or hemlines in old snapshots. If not, he'd never have teased her about it.

And none of that's changed. She hasn't got religion, is a convert to nothing. So maybe, he speculates, the 3-H Club got their hooks back in her. You'd hope youthful exposure to Hegel-Heidegger-Husserl would generate immunity, positivist antibodies; but what if some virulent strain of phenomenologicoccus, years dormant, came out of hibernation to dizzy her bearings, shake loose her grip, cause this problem?

She has no problem, Margaret retorts, unamused but unruffled. He apparently persists in having a problem believing what happened while he was three time zones away. Would he call that empirical—transcontinental intuition, bicoastal apperception? Whatever. It's his problem. For his info, though, she hasn't cracked a 3-H'er since graduation. (Sixteen years, Michael. What's the statute of limitations on senior seminars?) For his further info, on the evening in question, while he was living it up with his Rutgers epidemiologist and his urban planner from the Show-Me State (there's empiricism for him!), what she'd been reading was a chapter and a half of Feingold's Self-Limiting Market Projections: An Econometric Analysis. Finally, for his furthest info, this obsession of his with so-called terrestrial explanations that prove farther-fetched than anything she's ever said grows a wee bit tiresome. Postfinally, she thinks she'll take a little spin, do some shopping, grab a bite out, and hopes he enjoys his fucking omelet.

When she's gone, he returns to his list, writes down: Grape Nuts, Cheerios.

Westar swears on a stack of Bibles it delivered the bag in question directly into Quadratic's (famously slippery) hands in Cleveland. Quadratic no less forcefully affirms Westar did no such thing. Both offer exculpatory printout excerpts, mutual aspersions, abstract condolences worded to avoid even the most implicit admission of liability. Both personally wish Mr. Terringer the very best of luck in resolving his grievance with the responsible party. Both pledge to Mr. Terringer any/all assistance they might happily be in a position to provide for his efforts to prove that the other is that party. Westar wonders, in closing, if Mr. Terringer has had an opportunity to familiarize himself with its frequent-flyer program, and takes the liberty of enrolling him with a startup bonus of fifteen hundred free miles, as a concrete indication of solidarity with an innocent traveller maltreated by the kind of unscrupulous colleague that threatens to give all domestic carriers a bad name. Quadratic offers Mr. Terringer, on a space-available basis, free one-way passage, when used as part of a roundtrip ticket, to any destination in the continental U.S., a gesture it hopes will help restore his faith in an important sector of our national economy by showing him how much some airlines continue to care.

And it isn't jealousy. Of whom, of what? He knows, if she doesn't, that nothing happened, that Xokton Trebulon is figmental.

Her itch is back—yeast or Trichomonas, stress-related—and she asks him to add yogurt and cranberry juice to the list. When he, not stress-free himself, ventures a joke that comes out as a non-sequitur potshot—What can you expect if you go around having sex with aliens?—she insists, with the unwavering fidelity only truth deserves: It wasn't sex, it was far more cerebral than sex. You got that part right, he cracks, but later can't be sure if he said it aloud or only thought it.

If not Heidegger—if not Being-in-the-Bed-with-a-Figment—maybe an overdose of Unsolved Mysteries? Star Trek: The Generation After That? Or Geraldo, Ricki, Maury, Leeza, Montel, Shirley, Rolanda, Gordon? Gosh, it's like a soap opera, a sop Oprah, just one unlikely monicker after another.

He's grasping at straws. Margaret hates that pap; she's Nova and Nature through and through, Frontline and National Geographic and maybe the first fifty of 60 Minutes. He's the one who'll tune in a talk show while washing dishes, grading quizzes, deriving from it exactly the same kick as from pro wrestlers, faith healers, psychic counsellors: the pleasure of the superior viewer, of the demonstrably immune.

Similarly, the tabloids. It's he who returns from supermarkets holding in memory, as if balancing a book on his head all the way home, mondo-bizarro headlines to share with her, who never finds them remotely amusing.

Okay. What if he said he met an angel in LA? He means an honest-to-goodness wingèd immortal. Ran into one in the hotel elevator. Would she believe him?

Absurd. And on so many counts, she scarcely knows where to begin. But first, angels require theology, a systematic superstitiosity. They don't even pretend to exist absent some such global, in the sense of totalizing, ideological medium. What he posits, therefore, is not an isolated event in an aptly-named municipality, but no less than a conversion experience, which by definition would overarch and alter everything else. So: not only would such a claim be silly, but his analogy's flawed.

He's got to admit, she hasn't changed: beliefs, behaviors, style of argumentation, devotion (as far as he can see) to him. She hasn't changed.

But suppose he left town again: would he return to a Holy-Rolling flat-earther, a Ouija-boarding, supremacist-survivalist, spoon-bending cabbage worshipper; in short, a nut?

More absurd than the seraph in the elevator. No cult zany or fringe wacko, Margaret is Margaret. That's precisely what baffles him so! Not the tautology of enervation—what-can-I-say, Beryl-was-Beryl—but the trusty selfsameness of rock-solid consistency.

Still, this tiny, how would she put it, "event" sows a sandgrain where their marriage can least sustain it, not between the legs or in the joint checking account but in the mind. He tells himself, Make a pearl of it; but can't. Not like sand, then; like a cancer-seed. But we have cells programmed to treat that as oysters do sand: whole immune systems to surround and quarantine, disarm and outsmart the mutant. Well, then it's not like that either.

And he notices he's double-checking locks before lights-out, patting his hip for the wallet's shape, holding the lever an extra second to make sure the flush took, scrubbing handles as hard as tines, confirming expiration dates on credit cards, counting flights, so many steps up, same number down; halfway to obsessive-compulsive.

He doesn't trust things to stay put, not to multiply, divide, or migrate while he's looking the other way. He stocks up on toilet-paper, makes a housewide harvest of undepleted ballpoints, viable umbrellas. He counts, more than mere practicality would dictate, not only spare change, spare batteries, teeth in his head, but lovers before Margaret—eight—wishing it could have been nine, searching memory for a one-night stand so unsatisfactory he repressed it, wondering who might have been number nine, what opportunity he refused or failed even to recognize that could have made Margaret, the last and best, put him forever in double digits.

Though the issue never arose, he asks himself, for pete's sake, why he didn't sleep with Beryl in LA. He catches himself wondering if shingles is (are?) contagious, and decides he's compelled to tell Margaret, finally, what he's tried so hard to avoid saying: that the time has come for her to consider getting some help.

By "help," he'd mean psychiatric counselling. Correct?

Psychological, at least. Because this small and, he'd like to underscore, innocuous delusion is proving, to be honest, alarmingly resistant.


To common sense, to reason.

To him, he means.

Maggie, that's not fair. He's concerned about her.

He needn't be.

Well, he is. Won't she do this for him, for his peace of mind?

She won't; needs no "help"; needs to be believed and, if possible, forgiven.

Forgiveness isn't the point, Maggie.

Because he thinks nothing happened? She needs, first, to be believed; then they can judge whether forgiveness is the point.

He can assure her now: it's quite beside the point. Even if he believed it all, down to the starched twine.

She's forgiven, then?

Michael thinks a second, smoothes his sleeves. Yes. Yes, of course. But he thinks she needs some help.

He's mistaken. She doesn't.

They do, then.

Then he does. She doesn't. And she won't. She'd never tell anyone about this.

She told him.

Of course she told him. That's entirely different.

Why? Why, exactly?

Two reasons. First, she doesn't share details of their . . . intimate life with anyone but him. Does he, with anyone but her?

Michael picks nonexistent lint off a pocket, rolls it between thumb and forefinger, releases it. Of course not.

She hopes not; she'd never forgive him if he did. But then why would he expect her to?

What's the second reason?

Look at his reaction, and imagine someone who doesn't know and love her to begin with. A total stranger with years of training (and a vested professional interest) in declaring people daft. Does he think she's mad, Michael? Does he think she's crazy?

No. He thinks she's mistaken about one thing. Put that way, it doesn't sound like much. But, honey, everybody needs a little help sometimes.

His lawyer friend apologizes for taking so long to get back to him. Business is way too good, he says, smug. Now, the message said something about a bag? A bag of what?

A bag of memories, of happiness, Michael wants to say. Instead, he explains the Westar-Quadratic dilemma lucidly, without passion: a hypothetical Torts case.

Rock. Hard place. And the question is? asks lawyer Brad, whose tone suggests a man checking his watch in the first act, considering an escape at intermission.

The question is, what recourse is open to the bag's owner? Could she bring suit?

Anybody can bring suit for anything, Michael. But question: what's the point? Only a financial masochist would be thinking this way. What's in it for any lawyer dumb enough—sub-minimum-wage billables?

Michael sputters phrases he's heard: treble damages, pain and suffering. He can tell he'd sound foolish even to a layman.

Brad mercifully cuts him off, suggests a stern letter, copied to execs of both airlines; eventually, they'll split fair market value of bag and contents. Be enough of a nuisance, and maybe they toss in a few frequent-flyer miles. But no attorney is going to touch this.

What if money's not the object?

What does he think courts award: compensatory love, punitive happiness? Money, Michael, is the only object of such suits. Talk about treble damages: an hour of decent-lawyer time would cost three times the bag's value.

Brad has no idea what the bag is worth.

Granted. What's it worth?

Michael has no idea either.

Then what are they talking about here?

What if this bag were what you'd save in a housefire? What if it contained, like, everything you ever loved in your life?

Look, is he okay? Is everything okay? Michael? Michael?

Yeah. He's sorry. But damn it, it's not right, Brad.

Of course it's not. Jesus freezing Christ, Mike. What planet has he been living on?

It's just not right.

Look, uh, court in ten minutes. But hey, give his love to Maggie. And take some advice, pro bono: let it go. Just let it go. 'Kay? Look, gotta scoot.

Is it just him—Michael casually asks a colleague in the coffee lounge shortly before spring break—or does the world seem, lately, to be spinning more or less out of control?

The colleague, a physicist, pulls the mug from his lips, as if he just realized it was scalding him. Still at a drinking angle, it dribbles coffee into his beard. It's just you, he says, wiping his chin with a tweed cuff.

Late that night, Margaret sound alseep upstairs, Michael is brought to the verge of tears by the opening credits of The Outer Limits. Switching channels, he learns from a lurid spot that blond girls, black girls, hot and lonely girls are waiting to talk to him. He must be 18; the first minute will cost $5.99, additional minutes only $2.99. Guess they're not all that hot and lonely, he thinks, and smiles at his cleverness. But flipping the remote, he's weepy all over again at The Rockford Files, Spanish soccer, an Ab Isolator demo. He blubbers through a right-wing pundit, My Mother, The Car, and investment advice, before lighting on The Weather Channel. Three full cycles of his local forecast, accurate and dependable, later, he's calmer, ready for bed.

Certainly Dr. Pergament would be glad to interview Mrs. Terringer, but does not consider that will be necessary to deal with Mr. Terringer's problem. And if she, for whatever reason, chooses not to be involved, any attempt at coercion would frankly do far more harm than good.

He's told the psychiatrist, briefly, this: that his wife of eight years is under the impression she had a fleeting affair while he was in another city; but that he knows for a fact, the person she believes she slept with doesn't exist. A solemn promise to honor his wife's privacy precludes explaining how he knows; the doctor must take him at his word: it's a phantom lover; this he knows with absolute, he means absolute, certainty. But he loves his wife very much, Doctor, very much. Then, he began to sob.

Pergament thinks it's about sex. That's what shrinks get paid to think, Michael snorts. Later, though, he supposes most people would agree. But it's not about sex, or even about "not exactly" sex. It would be no different had Margaret reported a visitation from the Blessed Virgin.

Good, that's good, he's glad to hear it. He's heard the after-effects can be horrible. So that's great. But listen, the reason he called, . . . it's possible Maggie thinks they slept together in LA, and he wants Beryl to tell her they didn't.

Oh, didn't they?

Don't joke, Beryl. It's not a joke.

How does he know Margaret thinks that? And how would she raise the topic: Hi, how ya doin'; by the way, your husband and I had no sex two months ago?

He can't tell why he thinks she thinks this. He's not certain she does, but it would explain a lot. Well, not would, really; it could explain a lot.

A lot of what?

He's not at liberty to say. But she wouldn't have to be so blunt. She could call up, chat, share the good shingles news; along the way, drop some remark clearly implying hanky-pankilessness.

Give her a for-instance.

Like, oh: Ironically, now that she's fit as a fiddle, she's crawling out of her rash-free skin, cause she hasn't had a man since x, where x is anytime before February, or whenever she actually did. Women tell each other such things, don't they?

She tells anyone such things, if they're true; but whenever she actually did would be, most recently, let's see, last weekend, thanks very much.

That's nice for her (at least he hopes so), but is she willing to lie about it to Margaret for a good cause?

Not without knowing the good cause.

He told her: so Maggie will know the truth and feel secure about what happened in February. That's two good causes: the truth, Maggie's peace of mind.

What happened in February?

Nothing happened in February! Listen, Beryl, this is important to him.

Has he been cheating on Margaret? If that's what this is about—

Hell, Beryl. Nobody's had any affairs, nobody in this household anyway. He takes a deep breath, expels it with a large shoulder-sigh. Look: forget it.

Really, Michael, what's up? What's wrong?

Nothing. Nothing at all. Just erase this phonecall; obliterate it, expunge it. Never happened.

This will sound strange, but indulge him. Thought-experiment; unpremeditated response, okay? Could Jeff live with someone who believed something that was simply not to be believed?

Michael's had misgivings about posing the question to Jeff, who lost his lover to AIDS last year, but he can't think who else's answer he'd want to hear.

He'll have to be a dite more specific about not to be believed.

He means utterly incredible. Say the person gives credence to one single thing unworthy of belief by an intelligent being.

One thing. Like seventeen isn't a prime? like the moon is green cheese? the Tooth Fairy? clothes make the man? Hitler had a good idea? providence in the fall of a sparrow? What manner of thing?

Take the-moon-is-cheese. For the sake of argument. Could he live with that?

How cute is the guy?


Well, really. There needs to be a context. Tell him what the guy looks like, also how long they've been a couple before the intriguing tenet emerges.

Come on, Jeff. It's not about how the guy looks. He looks fantastic.

Is this about Margaret?

No, Jeffrey, it's about him. Michael asked about him.

Okay, for auld lang syne, he'll bite: Yes, he could. Matter of fact, he recently started seeing a guy who takes an alarming sort of prurient interest in All My Children. Wait, he's answering the question. No serious thing yet, three-four dates, but in a thought-experiment sort of way, this exact question has crossed his mind: could he live with a VCR programmed to tape All My Children five days a week and a guy who spends Sunday mornings in a sudsy marathon viewing frenzy? And assuming everything else about the guy is not perfect but, you know, excellent, the answer is: Yes, he could.

Is this true? Jeff has a boyfriend?

Nah. He made it up so his answer would sound more convincing. But hold on, his convincing answer isn't complete. He could, but he doesn't believe Michael could.

What's that mean?

Well, he's known him a long time: sizable database. He remembers Michael's vicious response sophomore year when a woman in Intro to Critical Thinking tried to reconcile the Big Bang with Genesis. He remembers all-nighters gabbing about Kant and Hume, Darwin and Freud, Woolf and Hemingway, Carter and Ford. He read Michael's AJS article on the four fallacies that taint quantitative studies of the family. He remembers the kinds of questions Michael asked when he and Beryl got engaged, when they divorced, when he came out, when he moved in with Louis. In short, he knows his dear pal to have a pathologically low tolerance for bullshit—unless it's televised so he can treat it sardonically—and not oceans of patience for people who profess it. That's his complete, convincing answer. So now what the hell is this about, Michael?

If he told him, he wouldn't believe it.

He's been reluctant to leave town, for fear it could happen again. But for one thing, what does he mean by again? For another, what harm, what further harm, in repetition? For another, he doesn't believe she would let it happen again, after seeing how he's suffered. But now what exactly might he mean by it?

He's corresponded with a man in St. Louis, whose name (Miles Findlay) he got from a colleague in the Vet School, regarding his long-deferred zoo project. The zookeeper wishes, of course, to discuss the proposal in detail before giving final approval, but sees no objection in principle to setting up an unobtrusive video camera and recording zoogoing families' responses to newborns. Early-summer would afford the greatest variety. If Dr. Terringer might pay a quick visit before then, he'd be glad to meet, prepare a list of expecting species, go over pros and cons.

Margaret's pleased: Michael hasn't done honest-to-gosh fieldwork in years. This zoo project would be a real departure, methodologically, from his prior work. Even if it came to nought, the St. Louis trip could be fun, and the Dean will cover airfare.

In a two-birds-per-stone vein: for the cost of a couple of nights' lodging, he'll buy himself a little perspective on the domestic sphere. And who's to say another brief hiatus won't have the result second blows on the noggin have in shows about amnesia, reversing the effects of the first?

He's done as Brad suggested—written to top-level executives—but his letters make clear he's not after money or miles. Instead, he wishes to underscore for them a simple fact: that carpetbag-handled totes with distinctive tapestry stripes in tones of sand, olive, spruce, acquired on honeymoons in Rio—articles possessing mass, extension, volume; items with 3-D structural integrity, put together with stitching, piping, rivets, zippers—do not drop off planets' faces, dissipate into ether, collapse like dying stars into black holes. Such things persist, are somewhere, ought, with proper diligence, to be retrieved.

Her torso—taut integument and its modicum of flesh—brings back weekends on the Cape, when sand wasn't a few misplaced grains chafing mineral-sharp under sandal straps but the medium of which tide and time sculpt a shoreline. He strolls a hand around the breasts, skirting the languid nippled glands themselves in favor of their surrounds, down clavicle ridges to the sternum, an exposed beach flanked, below the placid breast-dunes themselves, by subtle ebbtide ripples until the sudden drop-off at the base of her ribcage. His fingers move as a worm might, retreating for unpremeditated backtrackings and sidelong detours before rediscovering the same spot, exploring the familiar like a sightless creature with infinite patience, no memory.

Her standard yogurt-cranberry treatment hasn't been doing the trick; in fact, it's worse, itch blossomed into pain. She's going to need a prescription this time. With luck, by the time he gets back from St. Louis, . . .

But it isn't that she doesn't want to, now, before he leaves. She runs two enticing fingers along the sensitive underridge and off into air; his organ yearns upward after the lost touch. She proffers other pleasures: her hands, her mouth. Sadly, that's not what he's interested in.

In the off-season (chill March, even May) they'd have the shore to themselves, walking between high scarp and surf—their strip of sand gradually widening or thinning with the tide—for miles sometimes without encountering another mammal.

Watching his wife curled in docile sleep a foot away, hair a pre-Raphaelite cascade over the pillow, exposed skin like drapery in still air, Michael grows more rather than less tense. Only the shallow swell and dip of quilt over chest—bringing to mind the word becalmed, the word dinghy—says she's alive. Anxious over leaving, over her itch now turned to pain, he is visited by the cruelest thought yet: what if she concocted this entire charade—with cold calculation or no forethought at all—because she wants a divorce? She's mentioned no such thing. Perhaps can't. May not herself know it's what she wants. Might need him to own the unthinkable, say the unspeakable, come to her wanting it. And senses what, if anything—cognitive cruelty—could drive him eventually to demand it.

III. End

Foresightfully coaxing saliva from glands while taxiing, Michael hears ". . . crashed shortly after takeoff from . . ." Traditionally, these words will run through his mind at the outset of a flight. The companion phrase ". . . crashed shortly before landing at . . ." will arrive similarly, unbidden, at the appropriate moment. He read once that air disasters cluster about these perilous opening and closing maneuvers, and immediately recognized a known fact, never having heard "plunged precipitously to earth from cruising altitude today" on the evening news. The offhand incantations—facing the distant possibility or ritually warding it off, realist resignation or shamanist vaccine—have visited him on every flight since, except that last Logan landing shortly after he attained the status of The Man Who Survived Lightning. Now, ". . . crashed shortly after takeoff . . ." is back. He finds both the phrase and its return strangely comforting.

Pressurized cabins always dry him out, sometimes stuff him up. Now he foresees not only congestion but a potential for serious sinus pain. He'll arrive in St. Louis, indeed, feeling throbbingly top-heavy, yet oddly lucid. During the brief transit from seaboard to heartland, Michael will see that, of course, his problem—with Pergament, Beryl, Jeff—was always the same: no collateral to secure the credit he asked them to lend. He'll see it, high above Pennsylvania, in Margaret's banking vocabulary, as a fiduciary puzzlement. He'll revolve and rerevolve the thought from there to Missouri without really improving on his original metaphor.

After checking into a room not far from the zoo, he'll make the mistake of ordering two stingers with dinner. By the time he calls to report his arrival—safe, sound, uneventful, missing her already—in the Show-Me State, his head will be swaying like a wrecking ball hung from a high-up crane. Phoning the desk for a wake-up call, he'll request symptomatic relief as well, then wonder what to tip on a pair of complimentary pills. "Give me two aspirin and call me in the morning." He'll want to remember that one to share with Maggie when they talk next.

Michael's eyes flip open suddenly, as if someone somewhere pushed a button. Immediately he is aware of two things: he can't breathe through his nose; he's lost his keys. Just a dream, he thinks, leaping up to pat the relevant trouser pocket. No. He's lost his Boston keys: two house, one office, one VW, one Subaru, on a rosewood-inlay fob with a metal-bead chain. Motel key next to wallet on credenza. Don't panic; Boston keys are somewhere. Even if not, replaceable.

Standing in the semidark, Michael remembers: stowed for safekeeping before boarding the plane. Resisting the urge to check his ditty bag, where he now knows them to be, he climbs under covers, body a mere pedestal for the head, head a mere backdrop for the mouth, mouth a wheelbarrow of quick-set cement.

Keys in the ditty, ditty by the sink, sink in the bathroom, Room 114, Royal Court Motor Inn, St. Louis, Missouri. Meeting Miles Findlay in eight hours. It's two in the morning. Go to sleep.

Two hours later, he'll wake himself with five voracious sneezes. After recovering bearings and considering allergic reaction to motor-inn linens, alien bleach or fabric softener, he'll sleep again, only to wake three REM cycles hence with a nasty fullblown off-season flu. How rapidly these viral things develop! he'll think in the shower, shortly before running (dripping all over the wall-to-wall) to answer his wake-up call.

It's full spring already in St. Louis, where, for all Michael knows, it may be perpetually vernal. Not pleasantly so this week, with a ruthless needling rain and the threat of more when it briefly lets up. The zoo tour won't be fun, though his keeper means well, gives him the run of the place. Attendance diminished on account of the weather: disgruntled school groups, bedraggled teachers herding screeching kids into buildings, forced to avoid open-air displays where happier shouts would reverberate less. Michael and the zoo man scurry, venue to venue, under rhino-logo'd golf umbrellas, Findlay apologizing for scarcity of animals and zoogoing public: "In fair weather, we might see two rare red pandas, quite unlike their familar cousins in size and appearance —none of them, you may be aware, taxonomically bears—among these dead branches"; "One of our most successful habitats; last year, we graded this amphitheatrical slope, to accommodate the numbers typically present"; "On sunny days, springboks can be quite lively at this hour." Michael learns to keep Findlay to his left; his plugged right ear muffles the keeper's words into a fluctuant drone, audibly inflected but indecipherable.

Michael's been thinking: some species that doesn't resemble itself, perhaps. Not true insectile metamorphosis, but what does, say, an armadillo or rhinoceros look like at birth? Findlay, puzzled, sees little point in discussing newborns the zoo won't actually have on hand. He's printed a list, with all the data he thinks may prove useful. Now, if Dr. Terringer is finished with his lunch, the reptile house awaits.

It's an impressive zoo, great place to spend a day; not today, with these heavy legs, this dense head laboring to frame questions that bespeak sustained interest. Startled by a half-dozen humping baboons, brick-red zig-zags wiggling wickedly, he inquires about same-sex love, in the wild, in captivity. Findlay, curtly: "Some males, in rut, will rub up against virtually anything; it's meaningless." Toward tour's end, Michael asks whether interspecies coupling is a concern in so Noah's-arky a setting. Biologically impossible, he's told; in fact, standard definitions of species comprise reproductive compatibility. In rare exceptions—horse + ass = mule the best-known example—sterility results. Only after thoroughly disposing of a question he didn't like one bit (as if any scholar would fly all this way to indulge fantasies of bestiality) does Findlay permit himself a visible glower. Michael dislikes the zookeeper's exaggeration of a trait they share: a certain mental meticulousness, ever on the prowl for opportunities to wax supercilious.

He'll beg off, illness his honest excuse, from dinner plans, grab a bite at the Royal Court coffee shop, pass the evening in semi-recumbency. Rain so steady it alludes to trailer or tent, smacking more of frail vagabondage than this sturdy mid-range motor inn. At his bedside, a small pharmacopia: aspirin, megacaplets of C, antihist, decongest, expectorant in reserve for the virus's inevitable thoracic descent. On his lap, Findlay's bestiary of the currently gravid, noting characteristic infant behaviors, typical parental responses. Perusing, Michael will moan on and off, a low attenuated schwa provoked in part by the intriguing timbre of a temporarily lower register.

Findlay really went to town, desktop-publishingwise, scanning in photos, world maps with habitat cross-hatched. The zoo will showcase red pandas and the much-anticipated Asian elephant baby, but Michael has his pick of all litters (save nocturnals displayed in simulated darkness). By early summer, if all goes well, the zoo will boast neonatal tragopans (southeast Asian birds whose existence is news to Michael), fresh llamas, hornless bighorn sheep, short black-necked stilts, fluffy young bison. They'll have a range of playful deer and antelope, ring-tailed lemur and wallaby, Madagascar civet and trumpeter swan, marabou, mandrill, and manatee, okapi and coatimundi, kinkajou, klipspringer, kiskadee; there will be newborn poison dart frogs by the score.

In this context—all pregnancies distilled to a stapled inventory, phlegm-logged cranium, hovering on a thin stem of neck, unable to conjure thousands of non-expectant species names, so that the entire animal kingdom appears to be gestating in concert—Michael would perhaps inevitably latch onto offspring as a possible key.

Beryl, for instance, divorced Jeff over his refusal, not learning till he emerged from the closet a year later that he'd have loved some, but not born into a falsely-premised family. Last year, when Jeff ran the sad marathon of nursing a terminal lifemate, making Louis' passing bearable for Louis, Margaret thought this showed how good a daddy he'd have been. Beryl had to agree—a fine daddy—and wished he'd been less ethical, willing to fertilize her before coming clean about orientation (having given up marriage for kids, she's yet to find another male she wants to mingle genes with).

It seems, for some minutes, with memories afloat in the glutinous fog of his brain, conceivable: Margaret may want to conceive. Long ago, in the first or second flush of love—when they still talked of living in Geneva or Sarajevo, vacationing in Tahiti, still "surprised" one another with baglets of candy bearing their initials—M&M had a scare. They went for the test with mute trepidation. It would have been, then, for them, so self-evidently unfortunate a development that they scarcely discussed it before learning that, no, only she had a problem (hormonal, also scary for a time, but medically manageable). The doctor warned: it could, worst-case, make her sterile later in life. M&M shared a look of relief, complete accord: sterility struck them, just then, as a blessing. If M ever had second thoughts on that subject, she didn't share them with M.

It was he, in fact, who raised the topic every few years, just to ensure some gigantic malignant misunderstanding wasn't growing invisibly between them. Margaret, last time he did, asked him to assume, barring further notice, she'd not have a change of heart; asked him not, please, to bring it up for her sake, though (shades of Xokton) if he needed to address it she'd be willing, within reason, to respond.

And goodness, wasn't it, yes, the zoo of all places, last time the issue of issue arose. She remarked with horror that all these species, all but us, she stressed, amount to mere devices for self-replication, one-track vehicles for thoughtless procreation, endangered mates in shipping crates flown in like submissive mail-order brides. "It's just DNA," he can quote her verbatim as saying; "there are more humiliating things than extinction." He made her promise to tell him, directly, if her mind changed. Her biological alarm clock may, since then, have begun ticking; but he recalls including that word: directly.

Why, even for Jeff and Beryl, offspring were no key; just a clue to another mystery, a hairpin turn en route to discovering his gayness. The notion of Maggie craving a kid is just one more red herring (of which the zoo, along with golden marmosets, silver foxes, white bears, teal ducks, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, probably has new specimens on the way). All Michael's ideas, zoo project included, seem equally unlikely, dead-end, clogged and pointless as sinus cavities. He tosses Findlay's list away, takes refuge in the remote.

The Royal Court offers, besides cable, movies for hire in the five major genres: Action/Adventure, Romance, Comedy, Family, Adult. Michael's not sure he's seen anything Adult since guys dragged him to Satyricon in college. Remoting through on-screen menus, he orders Ciao, Mon Amour!, which shares nothing with his memory of Fellini: short on costumery, long on mucous membranes, frankly informative camera angles. Minutes in, a robust sneeze causes a deep ache in his engorgement; in its aftermath, he finds a dose of Ciao, Mon Amour! has done more to clear his sinuses than pseudephedrine and chlorpheniramine maleate put together.

Despite a most picaresque plot, Ciao is a masterpiece of suspense. How long till director maneuvers nameless female lead back to bed (or operahouse loge, industrial-arts classroom, . . .)? What position or skill will then swell her already impressive repertoire? How many items of lingerie can she have in that one shoulder bag?

Celibate upwards of two weeks, Michael doesn't maintain his personal suspense very long. His climax arrives in embarrassingly suggestible sync with that of the grease monkey who does his lubricious business in a sport-utility vehicle atop a hydraulic lift. Michael had no idea sperm could travel that far.

He strives to sustain sociological interest, but a hollowness washes over him as Mimi/Gigi/Fifi leads a flight attendant by the necktie to a jetliner lavatory. Foreseeing turbulence, flashing Fasten Seatbelt sign, close-ups of digits clutching haunches, of wildly bobbing nipples, Michael finds the suspense was all in him. That multilingual cast is interested in one thing only, changes of personnel, posture, and venue notwithstanding. Variants that moments ago intrigued him now seem trivial; equation after equation with the same solution. He quickly comes to regret the $7.50 applied to his room bill. The seatbelt sign flashes, intercut with oscillating close-ups: tan fingers, pink haunches, maroon nipples. He retrieves the remote, bids Ciao, Mon Amour! adieu.

In his brief sojourn in the Adult world, Michael noted a peculiar kind of shot. (That steward would just about now be retracting fuselage and landing gear at the critical moment to show the camera what's up.) He found these views of flying sperm, frankly, a bit off-putting. He'd prefer to watch other things . . . a face, for instance, eyes lightly shut, neck craning back, mouth on the quivery verge of utterance (not far from ogling yoga; his temperament may be basically soft-core). But what, he has to wonder, is the point of having the men deliver their gamete goods in plain sight? Empirical proof that honest-to-goodness sex, not acting, has been performed? By doing what no one but X-rated actors or the contraceptively challenged would? A perverse verisimilitude, that.

It's three in the morning, torrential to judge by the sound, and Michael can't sleep. Spent and weary, he suddenly thinks he can see where this is going.

His fortieth is coming up in a month. Margaret will want to do something "special." He's never liked being the birthday boy, man of the hour. Most years, a loving mate will honor a simple refusal. But these round numbers . . .

"No thanks," he'll say. "It's an accident of base ten. If we used base two, like computers, I'd be turning, who knows, something full of ones and zeroes. Base twelve, I'd be thirty- . . . four; always a pleasure to be divisible by seventeen, what with locust plagues and all, but eight years shy of the sort of multiple our culture puts such stock in."

"Base ten is no cultural accident," she'll argue. "It's fingers, toes: a universal, built-in feature of human life. Like parties. It's inevitable; relax and enjoy it."

That formula rankles, but he'll let it pass, wishing instead to contest the tie that binds math to body parts. "Extremities program minds, you claim?" How often he's wanted to give her what-for about comparative physiology, stopped just short of yelling, Will you please, for one minute, think about anatomy! He'll stop short again, saying only, "Biology is destiny? No thank you again. No party if you please."

She won't please. "It'll be fun, Michael. Couldn't we use an event?"

He might choose not to respond to that.

"I'll do everything, all the planning and preparation." Sounding more honestly stirred-up than she has in some time. "Just help with one thing: the guest list. Make it hypothetical if you prefer. If one were, subjunctive, to throw you a welcome-to-your-fifth-decade bash, whom would you like to see there?"

He'd rather not say.

"Come on, Michael, help me out."

He won't be a party to this . . . party.

Margaret's fingers flexing in frustration, as if about to approach and tickle him.

After a minute passes over them like a cold front, he might say, "You want to know whom to invite? Invite Xokton."


"Xokton Trebulon."

"You've lost me, darling. Is this someone from school?"

"X-o-k-t- . . . oh, forget it. Invite whom you wish. Just don't invite me."

So she won't. A surprise party. No one will breathe a word. She'll make it a kind of testimonial dinner to boost his spirits, rub it in that he's been miserable. She'll fly friends in from all over: Jeff, of course, and Beryl (first time together since the breakup, unless they met in LA without his knowing); others he hasn't seen in years.

He's never liked Champagne—its tinny residue on soft palate, like a sore-throat premonition—but he'll indulge. They'll laugh when he complains the flute's too small, switches to a mug.

And charades, which he used to enjoy: but on mugs of bubbly, who knows what he's liable to mime? Some lewdness: acting out bit parts of Ciao, Mon Amour!, wildly humping the air before Margaret's face, pawing Beryl in a way only he thinks is a joke? Makes no difference; point is, it's scandalous, people think the marriage is on the rocks, sexual infidelity on every mind; but it's not a sexual, it's a what, an ontological issue.

Or wait, no, pre-charades, his gift: she'll have booked a Caribbean cruise, air to Miami departure, 6-days/5-nights on a floating resort. Aiming for surprise with so not-them an idea, so conventionally exotic he could never guess. "God," he'll ask, "does she think we're Frank & Kathie Fucking Lee?" "Frank and Kathie who?" she'll say. He'll say, "I choose not to cruise." "But it's nonrefundable." "Take E.T., then, or My Favorite Martian, or The Thing That Ate Pittsburgh, if money's your concern; but couldn't you foresee me defaulting? Isn't that what you do, predict probabilities of people confirming your stupid predictions? Isn't that your fucking job?" What prompts the unforgivable outburst matters no more than its content. Public eruption of discontent is the crux.

Next morning, he'll be hung way over, feeling not unlike this, densely phlegmy from the neck up, leaden all over. Margaret, tidying debacle debris, won't be talking to him. He said he didn't want a party; he repeatedly begged her. She won't argue, breaking silence only to request that he please stay out of her way so she can clean up this mess.

Finally—toward sunset, or six months later, it doesn't matter—Margaret will speak. She'll be thinking they could use some time apart; "think things through," she might say, or "get our bearings," "sort things out." It won't matter which trite formula she uses; he'll know what it means, whether she does or not. He knows already; what, in retrospect, will this St. Louis trip look like, if not a trial separation?

So many ways to lose a mate: disease and death, third and fourth parties, now this: cosmological incompatibility, irreconcilable epistemic differences. Could they really split over nothing more than this? But it wouldn't be just this, would it? It would be, like anything else, part of the whole bristling, crackling ball . . . like that distant thunder that defies discrimination: many strikes, or just the one, bouncing around like a pinball?

Michael's going to hate living alone: being silent for hours on end or talking to himself like a lunatic. His mind will suffer; no one to share thoughts, test observations. The voice not a passive conduit, but a tool of thought. And he'll lose the Cape, never choosing to walk those beaches alone.

With luck, the day he moves out will be the saddest day of both their lives. Maybe by then it will be February again, that short raggedy-edged month when so many lousy things happen. The honeymoon bag, battered but unburst—not lost, just lost track of—will have reappeared by then, wagging a tattered nametag behind it. One airline or the other, no matter which, contrite. Double-bubble-wrapped Fire 'n' Brimstone, intact, for all its misguided world travels. "A gift for you," he'll explain, "from the Southwest. Pretty belated, but there you have it." She'll demur, want him to take it away with him: "I don't think I deserve it." "For heaven's sake, Maggie, no one deserves it. It's not poetic justice. It's hot sauce." And he'll leave with a couple of bags and his laptop, check into a mid-range motor inn not unlike the Royal Court, not too far from campus.

It's there, in some such place as this, that it will have to end—because that's how it has to end, or because he can't see a more fitting dénouement. He'll take only a motel-room's-worth of clothing; two sweaters maybe, one handknit by Margaret back when she used to knit, tangled up in which he might still find the odd stray hair, years off her head now but still meandering like a live tendril, capable of taking a charge in arid motel air. When he grasps and pulls at it, still sinuous and springy, it will straighten, then grow taut, then, surprisingly, stretch beyond straight like light near the sun. It won't let go: caught up in some clever needle-knotted strategy, some yarny geometry problem posed during their engagement. What Michael will find most remarkable, he supposes, is the elasticity, the amazing tensile strength.

By this point—with barometric and sinus pressures indistinguishable, rain that's hardly let up since he got off the plane—he's aching for the first flash of lightning; wishing he were six miles up with Elaine Tremaine, shielded by redundancy; talking to himself, diseased baritone ringing strange in rented darkness. Don't, he says, get mawkish. Don't, he tries to tell himself, be stupid.

Robert Chibka,
who is grateful to the editors of Epicenters for their willingness to disseminate, if only in pixels, something of the length of "Sic Transit," has published one lonely novel A Slight Lapse, some shorter fiction, and critical articles on, mostly, eighteenth-century British novels, which, in addition to fiction-writing, he regularly teaches at Boston College, where he also currently directs the English Department's Creative Writing Concentration.