Bev said she was taking a day for herself and I was delighted to oblige. She was no picnic when she wanted to be alone. She was out the door almost before I gave her my answer. I heard her car start and heard it stall because she never followed my advice to let it warm up for half a freaking minute. Then she was gone.
So what now? I always felt short of time and now that I had some I couldn't think of an interesting way to use it. And what would happen when Bev returned on a loop of discovery because she'd forgotten the checkbook and found me exactly where she had left me, except for the first thin coating of dust? I got a move on.
About loops of discovery: Our lives are one big loop of discovery, if we're paying attention. But within this ultimate loop turn infinite smaller loops we aren't aware of until they close, the closing heralded by a small moment of understanding. Loops can have such a long time frame--a marriage, a childhood--that we're barely aware of them. The shortest loop I've experienced is the one that opened me up to the whole idea.
It was at a movie with Bev. A winter matinee. After the show we climbed back into our parkas and hats and set off for the rear exit, thinking it would discharge us close to our car. But when we pushed the door open we realized that we had been turned around by the multiplex's interior maze and our car was parked on the opposite side of the building. We backtracked, and there in the aisle, by our seats, was one of my gloves. The loop closed so fast I laughed. Bev asked why. I tried to explain but the idea was new in my head and I could hear myself confusing her.
"Sounds like luck to me," she said.
The discovery, the under-standing, at the end of a loop can also be painful. At work it was my habit to leave the quadrant of cubicles I shared with (clockwise from me) Kelly, Shelly, and Floyd at three o'clock every afternoon to purchase an extra-large iced tea with lemon and mint and to dispose of two to four minutes watching other people engaged in their own loops of discovery. Before leaving my desk, I asked my quadrant mates if they wanted anything while I was out and they were polite enough to say no.
While I waited for the elevator a bolt of lightning glazed the lobby window. I circled back for the collapsible umbrella I kept in my bottom drawer.
Floyd was at my desk. Shelly and Kelly were turned toward him in laughing communion. He was doing an impression of me. It was pretty good. My reappearance caused such a gush of embarrassment that I felt bad for them. Bev would have called my unexpected return, or unexpected discovery, bad luck. I would have said I learned something about myself: Cut down the noise when I'm eating.
First stop on my day alone was a mall near our town house. The mall contained an art supply store where I planned to purchase a couple pounds of sculpting clay. A starter lump. I'd always meant to be an artist.
In the mall's parking lot, a woman in an oversize GMC van was trying to back out of a narrow parking space between an eight-inch-high concrete island on her left side and a Hyundai on her right. The van was onion-dip brown, venetian blinds in all the windows, a rec room on wheels.
The woman had the steering wheel turned hard to the right, compressing the driver's-side fiberglass running board against the island each time she tried to go back. Twice she got stuck, went forward until she was free, then repeated the maneuver, her steering wheel still all the way to the right.
I butted in. "Turn the wheel left," I advised. "Then go forward."
She looked built of bird parts: tiny hollow bones, feathery black hair, anxious features.
I mimed a spin of the wheel to the left.
Her eyes took me in. Still in reverse, she goosed the gas and accordioned the running board a fraction of an inch more.
"No. Left!" I spun my phantom wheel again. I wanted to reach in and turn the damn steering wheel for her. But we were just strangers in a parking lot. She might scream if my hand crossed the plane of her window. I didn't want to spend my free day sculpting a gun out of jail soap.
I jerked my thumb. "Forward!"
She put the van in park. Opened the door. "You," she said.
She hopped out. Waved me in. "You. You."
The seat was so close to the steering wheel I had to squeeze in sideways. The electric toggle switch for adjusting the seat was near the floor, and while it slowly slid back I took a moment to look around. The dash console was outfitted with a gooseneck map light and a four-hole cup caddy. A potted plant grew in one of the holes. Another held a spray bottle of water. Wind chimes played on the radio. It looked like about a mile to the rear window. The back seats had been removed and tall, slender plants in green pots filled this cavernous space wall to wall and floor to ceiling.
I turned the wheel to the left and inched the van forward until it floated free of the concrete island. The wind chimes stopped. It hadn't been the radio I'd heard but rather an interlude on a tape I now clearly heard hissing in the speakers.
A sound of trickling water commenced. A woman spoke. The van's owner leaned in through the window and reached across me to turn up the volume. I felt the oddest sensation of her imposing on me.
"Let us talk about water," the woman on the tape was saying.
"It is life and good fortune and should be used for the positive energy that it brings. A fountain or an aquarium--some form of moving water--helps stimulate qi and has a calming effect."
The air in the van was lush and shadowy, grooved by the venetian blinds. I felt very relaxed. Very at home.
"A flat mirror provides a perfect mirror image," the voice said, "so yin becomes yang and bad qi becomes good."
I backed halfway out. A passing car bounced sunlight through the van's windshield and triggered a green burst in the plants behind me. It was the briefest illumination. But enough. I hesitated a moment, then turned the wheel just enough to bring the van's front corner unnecessarily close to the Hyundai. This new difficulty gave me time to think. The woman moved with me, absorbed in the tape. I gave her a deflecting smile that I don't think she noticed.
"The xue is the ideal spot for a house. Open space in front is the ming tang. It is surrounded by the spirits of four mythical animals. The distant front view is the red bird; the black tortoise is the hill of protection at the back; azure dragon to the left; white tiger to the right."
She placed a hand on the window's rim. Maybe she had seen my phony smile. I thought I saw in her expression the first realization that she might have made a mistake inviting me to get behind the wheel.
"It is best if a stream of water runs in front of the house. The heaven qi will descend the hill and be contained by the water."
I chewed my lower lip as if frustrated by the van's enormity and the constriction of the parking space. I raised a finger to her and backed up. The van's retreat pulled her hand off the window. It was a simple maneuver to turn the wheel, to glide out of the parking space.
"You must find the center of your house."
Yes, that was it. I would go home.
The woman walked around in front of the van. I waited until she was out of the way and then I floored it. Wind through the window rattled the blinds. At the mall exit I signaled, turned, and sped away.
Far from being nervous in the van because it was stolen, I was embarrassed by the monstrous size of it, the way it ate up space, air, and natural resources. I imagined my fellow motorists resenting its existence. It's not mine, I wanted to shout out the window. Not my wide ass. Not my drag on the environment.
But it was my marijuana forest.
The woman on the tape told me: "Your life force, your good qi, wants both freedom and discipline. Treat it with respect and golden felicity. It is you. You alone know its best qualities and its qualities in need of development. Good qi needs both pampering and obstacles to press against.
I knew exactly where I would put the pot, knew the path I'd follow transporting it plant by plant from the van, through the door, across the hall, and down to the basement. A Ping Pong table awaited, currently employed as a holding area for everything lacking an assigned place of its own: magazines we meant to read, unironed laundry, repair projects put off and allowed to shame me in recollection. The table's green surface, swept clear, would be perfect for the orderly rows of plastic pots. In fact, if I wasn't mistaken, the rear of the van was the exact dimensions of a Ping Pong table.
I would read up on the project I had undertaken. I would study the dynamics of illegal plant growth. I would buy my supplies at a variety of stores to avoid a pattern of purchase that could lead to detection. How much water did they need? How much light? I had no idea when the crop would be ready. And when it was ready, what was required of me then? I hadn't smoked pot in years. The science of it, the vital details that would make it a success, were mysteries to me. I only knew I was excited because it was something new to think about; a new source of conversation, even if it had to be whispered.
I steered into our driveway and reflexively reached for the garage door remote control that was clipped to the visor of the car I'd left at the mall. As my fingers poked at nothingness an unpleasant thrill of disbelief coursed through me. What the hell was I doing? If the bird woman thought nothing of turning her van full of pot over to a stranger, she might also think nothing of calling the police to report her van full of pot had been stolen.
The woman on the tape said, "It is bad luck to have your staircase directly opposite your front door, because qi and money can run straight down and out of your life."
Bev and I lived in a town house, each town house with a one-car garage and an automatic opener. The units were laid out so we never had to see our neighbors face-to-face. We only had to listen to them through the walls.
Not much qi. Out front, where there should have been a flowing stream, was a river of traffic.
I parked in the driveway and ran for the front door. For a moment the lock stymied me. Then I noticed I was trying to use the keys I'd taken out of the van. A blue rabbit's foot. A small canister of pepper spray in a red leather thumb case. A gold letter F, weighty and ornate.
My three keys, lacking knickknacks, looked unlived in. What did my home say about me? Was my life force, my good qi, crimped and truncated by my home's meagerness, the way the rooms didn't flow into each other in a felicitous pattern? There were unexplained outjuttings of wall that we suspected were the flip side of extra space added to our neighbors' living area. We assumed they had the same complaints about us. We heard their fights, their sex, their barking azure dragons.
I went to the garage and hit the button that operated the door. It ascended in three flimsy, folding panels. The phone rang behind me.
"You're home," Bev said.
"Where are you?"
"Out and about."
"Not so easy having a day to yourself, is it?"
"Gloriously easy. Are you staying home?"
"I was out. And I'll be leaving again soon."
"Because, if you were staying home there's a mountain of laundry to be done--you could do."
"I could put in a load--"
"It's not safe to leave it."
"Might vibrate the neighbors' bowling trophies off their shelves?"
Bev laughed. I heard in that laugh the reality of our situation: she was crazy about me.
"Why did you call?"
She was not ordinarily without an answer.
"To check on me?"
"It seemed silly to not be accomplishing something at home."
"Accomplish a change?"
She was quiet for so long I had time to remember the van. "I've got to go."
"I want a baby," she said.
I could only think: she isn't so fed up that she doesn't want to have sex with me. At least once more.
"It's time. Don't you think?"
"That is a big change."
"You can handle it."
"I've gotta go."
She said nothing.
"The car's running. I just ran in."
"Run run run," she said, sounding like a kid whose surprise didn't get the desired reaction.
"It's not...I'm not saying no."
"We've been married eight years."
"Don't I know it."
"I've just been thinking. Lately. What's the...if we don't have kids, what are we doing being married?"
"You mean, the point?"
"That's too harsh. But, yeah."
I felt the call closing in on me. "Why we are married."
"Something like that."
"Exactly like that," I said.
"To be together? To...be together."
"I'm coming home."
Back outside, I found a cop was circling the van. He had a gun and a badge, but something unofficial about his appearance kept terror from consuming me. Then I realized: he was wearing bedroom slippers.
He thrust out a hand. I shook it.
"Listen. I'm off duty. Just got home. I was on my way to bed when I looked out and saw your van."
"You wear your gun at home?"
The tenor of my question wasn't what he expected. His demeanor flickered from Officer Friendly to Joe Friday then back.
He shrugged. "It's a habit. Talk to a citizen, strap on the iron." He tapped his chest. "Got my vest on, too." He smiled, in charge again. "So don't try nothing funny."
He cupped his hands around his eyes and put his eyes to the van's windshield. I expected in quick order the disbelief of discovery, the cuffs, the ride, the one phone call.
"This is a seriously long van," he said. "How long, exactly?"
"You know...I'm not sure."
He positioned himself at the left corner of the van and proceeded to pace off the length, heel to toe. I heard him counting as he passed me.
"The reason is," he said, when he had finished, "the village has an ordinance that prohibits parking a vehicle that blocks the sidewalk. And this boat is definitely blocking the sidewalk."
"You got me." I raised my hands.
A woman came around the corner then, dragged along by a German shepherd on a leash of heavy chain. The dog's wet, black plum of a nose sampled every scent the air had to offer.
"Helen!" the cop barked.
The woman's hair was planed down to a blond stubble. "His name is McGruff," she said, her eyes tiny and unadorned.
"Helen is blind and deaf," the cop said with a malign enthusiasm. "DeeDee picked him out herself. Her dream was for Helen to grow up and work for U.S. Customs."
The dog swept its nose over the left front tire of the van; definitely leaning toward being interested in something, but not quite there yet.
"The vet who examined him saw the problem right away." He laughed. "Now Helen has a seeing-eye human."
McGruff was on his hind legs, running his nose over every square inch of the driver's door he could reach.
"You want Daddy's breakfast?" DeeDee said to the dog, jerking the chain so hard it hummed.
"Deed," the cop pleaded, but with no feeling warmer than cruel amusement.
The dog left toenail trails in the sidewalk as it was dragged away.
The cop looked bottomlessly unhappy. "So I call him Helen," he said, shrugging, walking back inside.
The van's door handle was wet. Dog smell got on my palm. The interior was quiet and peaceful. I didn't feel comfortable until I was on the move again, when that van was no longer blocking the sidewalk. The forest behind me swayed in the turns.
The bird woman was on a cell phone, standing at the mouth of the parking space like she had been saving it for me. I'd been gone less than half an hour. I had so much experience driving the van that I was able to slip back into the space without any extra maneuvering.
She said something to someone on the phone, a melody of clucks and gongs. She checked the cargo, said something else, then folded the phone away.
"You!" she said.
I got out. "Yeah, sorry. Bad qi."
The word got her attention. She looked at me with new respect.
"My mistake," I said, handing her the keys. My car was over there. My wife was on her way home. She wanted a baby. I'd get the sculpting clay some other time.
"You." She slapped the van's flank and waved me into the driver's seat. I had not solved her original predicament.
"You," she said. "You."
She kept the keys in her possession until she was in the passenger's seat. She patted the driver's seat. With her hand she mimed the arc the van would make backing out of the parking space. But she would ride along this time.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tim Anderson.