ne Night in July, a month after I’d finished high school, I woke up in Rachel’s bed a bit uneasy, feeling that somehow things between us had changed. The glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling had cooled and pitched the room into heavy darkness. Beside me, Rachel gave off an immense heat.
I rolled from the covers and lay there naked for a time, disconcerted. My mind was fogged but my senses felt oddly acute. The house took deep breaths. Strange purple phantoms spun toward me out of the hot, still corners of the room. At the foot of the bed, Rachel’s sweet ratty dog, Lila, shifted about restlessly, as though she too sensed ghosts. Her collar tags clicked and tinkled.
What was wrong? Where was I exactly? I thought of burrowing in again close to Rachel, but there was too great a danger I’d sleep straight through to morning and be discovered by her parents. Already it felt as late as 3 or 4 a.m. I stood and shuffled blindly around the room, locating my clothes with my feet one item at a time. Once I was dressed I moved back to the bed, leaned across it, and kissed Rachel’s smoldering forehead, her eyelids, one-two, and her hot cheek. For one desperate moment I hoped she would wake up—even halfway up—and murmur something that made sense of things, or anything at all, even something that made no sense, but she remained deep in her dreams. I went to the door. Lila-dog resettled to the spot I’d been sleeping.
Quietly, I moved into the hallway, past her parents’ bedroom, and down the stairs to the dining room. I pulled on my socks and my shoes. Basement pipes ticked. My heart jangled a bit. What the hell was this? Why did everything feel so precarious? I wanted to put on lights and music. I wanted to return from whatever strange galaxy I’d been whisked to. The living room screens were open and a cool breeze pushed through. I thought I’d feel better once I was outside. I ducked into the kitchen, stocked up on cookies from the cabinet, and went out the back door into the night.
Rachel’s house was west of town, way out Liberty Street at the bottom of a huge hill just before Zeeb Road. When I came to see her late at night, after her parents were asleep, I always parked at the little gravel turn-out half a mile up the road—that way if one of them woke up and happened to peek out at the driveway they wouldn’t catch sight of my Aerostar.
A rain had fallen. I walked up the middle of the road. In places the pavement was damp and slick. Branches above bristled their leaves and dripped raindrops onto my bare arms and my neck and into my hair. No cars passed. The world was very still. Most nights, on these climbs back to my van, lightning bugs sparkled by the thousands in the trees and across the meadows as far as I could see while crickets trilled a wild sawing chorus. They were aware of me. Some nights I sang to them as I climbed the hill. Together, the lightning bugs and crickets formed a single shimmering organism, a power, a force.
But that night the lightning bugs were not there and the crickets lay hidden and hushed, deep in the grass. I thought it must be very late, that blackest starless hour just before dawn. A powerful and unexpected sadness welled up within me. I felt as though I was beginning a long journey from which I might never return. There was no joy in this, no excited tingle of anticipation at what might lay ahead, only a terrible sense of loss. Everything I’d ever known would be left behind. Rachel! I loved her dearly. I needed her. I didn’t want to let her go. Why should I have to? Because I was starting college? Because she wasn’t the one for me? It wasn’t clear. Nothing made sense. I tripped over fallen sticks in the road. My limbs felt strange to me.
I reached the Aerostar, climbed in, and headed toward town. I could make it home faster on the highway, but sometimes I liked to cruise around for a while and be intimate with the city, exploring streets I’d never been down, checking out the night-time views from atop different parking structures. I’d listen to the radio softly, brooding on things. That night, though, I left the radio off. I left the headlights off, too. I didn’t want to break the darkness or the stillness and chase away the strange gloom that had come over me until I’d figured out the source of it.
At Stadium Boulevard, a car flashed its lights at me. I emerged from my thoughts and flipped on mine. Getting stopped by a cop wasn’t going to end all the bullshit angst, but could very easily set me back sixty-five bucks. I felt socked with hunger. This late, my options were limited—The Fleetwood Diner, Denny’s, and if it was still before four, Bell’s Pizza. I peered down Stadium at the bank clock. 70 degrees. 12:44. Only a quarter to one? That would mean I’d been asleep at Rachel’s for less than an hour. The bank clock had to be off. I figured I’d go into town and see. I turned on the radio—static: trembling Mozart.
In town I had another surprise. At Main Street, Liberty was blocked off, big orange and white wooden barricades stood across the road. I saw, in fact, once I backed up out of there and tried getting through on Washington and a few other streets, that everything downtown was completely blocked off. Now what was this all about? Had I missed, in my sleep, some serious full-scale riots? Naw. Not in Ann Arbor. Not on a Tuesday. Were they re-paving every street in town the same night? Doubtful. More likely they were going to have the Dexter-Ann Arbor run or some other half-marathon at dawn, with the home stretch down Main Street, a huge FINISH banner at Main and West William.
I pulled to the curb and tried to figure out what to do. Maybe drive back to Rachel’s and climb back into bed with her. So what if her parents found us there in the morning? We were in love, right? What was wrong with love? That’s what I’d say to her dad, Mr. Otto von Bokel, as he stood there in his plaid PJ’s looking us over—“What’s wrong with love, man? Dude, look, I mean, I love your daughter. I do. Look at her. She’s beautiful. I just wanted to lie next to her all night. Cool? We cool?” I could sleep there, I could stay over, if only her dad had a damn job. But he was always around in the mornings, and that had forced me into a number of complicated escapes in which I’d had Rachel corner him in the kitchen and bang pans together while I scurried out the front of the house. A couple of times I’d waited hours ‘til he went in the bathroom to take a dump. Once I’d even tied sheets together, jail-break style, and lowered myself down from Rachel’s window. I was never doing that again. Halfway down, dangling there, Rachel had whistled fiercely from above. Her dad was going downstairs. I couldn’t risk being seen through the living room windows. She told me to just hang on for a sec. I chilled there for about ten or fifteen minutes until my forearms were shot—then I dropped. My ankles were fucked up for about a week. We never managed to get those knots out of Rachel’s bed sheets.
I parked the van in the old Schlenker’s Hardware lot and climbed out. Far away I heard sounds of a commotion—people bickering and shouting, the clattering wood on concrete. The city was on edge. I felt defenseless against the night and my troubles. I went around to the Aerostar’s passenger side, roared open the sliding door, and sorted through the debris I’d accumulated in back, looking for the right thing to carry with me—not a prop or a weapon, but something that made sense, something to balance me. The van was filled with junk—dozens of paperbacks from the library book sale, empty boxes of Life cereal, winter jackets and boots, a catcher’s mask, chest protector, and mitt, four-way jacks, lug wrenches, a spare tire. Poking out beneath the rubble was a long wooden oar; when I saw it I knew immediately it was what I’d been looking for. I yanked it free. The thing was about nine feet long and heavy as a barbell. I had no idea where it had come from or what it was doing in my van, but it felt right, so I wielded it like a walking stick, paddle-side down, and marched up toward Main.
Beyond the barricades, the dark streets were hectic with activity. Ropes twanged; hammers pinged off metal stakes; canopies whooshed through the air like giant manta rays. People mashed this way and that, flipping tables out of the backs of trucks, slapping tent poles together, crying out each other’s names. It was as though I’d stumbled upon a vast volunteer army preparing for a siege. Everyone had the same look of ragged determination. They swarmed past me without taking notice.
I took a step back and smacked into an old woman draped with thick orange and black electrical cord. I said sorry, and for half a second she seemed to see me; then her eyes flickered away and she headed off in another direction.
“Wait!” I called out. I hurried after her and tugged at the cords hanging off her shoulder. She turned and faced me blankly. “What’s going on?” I asked her. “I mean, what—what is all this?”
The woman considered me. Through her hands and around her waist the black cords slid sneakily, like a python tightening its grip. She glanced at my oar and said at last, “Don’s looking for you. He can’t do anything ‘til you get that to him.”
I was utterly mystified. “Don?”
“Your dad, too,” she said. “I just saw them.” At that moment someone twenty feet behind her hollered out a warning and I looked up in time to see a long fluorescent bulb tumble through the air and smash to dust on the pavement. A few people scrambled away, hands over their faces to keep the glass powder from their eyes. For a moment everything grew quiet and all activity nearby ceased, but that was only for a moment—then things picked up again. The old woman danced away through the crowd.
I thought of Rachel suddenly and felt sick and nervous and dizzy. I was still on her street, and yet we were no longer even in the same universe. It seemed possible that I’d never see her again. Emptiness ballooned up inside me. I felt lost in a lurid, alien province, and I was desperate and afraid as a little kid separated from his parents at a seedy carnival. I longed for a familiar face. I was hungrier than I’d ever been. Across the street, I saw that Subway was still open—the time really was as early as the bank clock had claimed.
Inside Subway, it was cool and well-lit. A fat guy behind the counter stood facing away from me, wiping all the surfaces down with a pink sponge. “Be with you in a second,” he said. In the back, out of sight, a faucet blasted away at a tub full of baking tins. After a bit, the guy abandoned his cleanup, went to the front door, turned off the red neon OPEN sign, and locked us in. He returned to the counter, turned to face me, and grimly snapped on a pair of thin clear plastic mittens, as though donning surgical gloves before a difficult operation. “Now what do you need?”
I ordered a sandwich and followed him down the counter, picking out the trimmings I wanted. The guy was gruff and incommunicative. He looked about fifty years-old. He had a huge gray mustache and glasses with thick lenses. Each of his sturdy forearms bore a big, black, indistinguishable tattoo. Pinned to his purple Subway shirt was a Subway name-tag with no name.
At the register he rung me up and appraised me for the first time. He looked dubiously at my oar. “You can’t bring that in here,” he said.
What was he talking about? I was already leaving. Besides—an oar? What was wrong with that? I looked back at him and said, “It’s not loaded.” He grunted. I’d given the wrong response. A bizarre thought leapt to life in my mind, and the whole place seemed to tip on its side—maybe the guy was talking to me in code; maybe this was Don!
I asked the guy his name. He crinkled his face at me. “Who wants to know?”
“I do. I mean, you look like someone I used to know.” He was silent, and his silence forced me on. “An old neighbor. A neighbor we had. When I was little. He moved away. I always thought he was cool, and I wondered, like, what happened to him. You look like him is all.” I watched his eyes through his thick glasses and carefully dropped the bombshell. “His name was Don.”
No response; none at all. I’d been quite wrong. The guy simmered at me for a moment as though I’d called him a prick, or a fat-ass, or a four-eyed faggot, and then at last he narrowed his eyes and said, as though lashing back, “Are you here for Art Fair?”
Art Fair! Of course. That explained just about everything. It was Tuesday night, and Art Fair always began on a Wednesday morning. How could I have forgotten and been so unaware? A half-million people would be passing through town. All the folks outside, they were bracing for invasion. Booths had to go up; stores had to arrange their tables for all the sidewalk sales; everything had to be assembled and readied in a hurry before it began to rain again.
The guy at the register was waiting for me to respond before he’d give me my change. “Here for the Fair,” I said. “Yup. We’re from Ohio. My aunt sells oars. Hand painted ones. Beautiful, I mean, really beautiful. Booth two-nineteen. We’re just around the corner. Tomorrow, you know, you should stop by.”
The guy said nothing at all. He shorted me eighty-five cents on my change and disappeared into the back of the store. I headed out. The front door, though, wouldn’t open, no matter how hard I pulled or pushed—I’d forgotten that the guy had locked it. I waited there for a minute or two. It occurred to me that perhaps he’d slipped out the back and locked me in overnight. Oh, this was going to be fantastic. A Subway hostage. Fucking splendid! Not as cozy as Rachel’s bed or my own, I supposed, but a lot more Sun Chips. Finally, the guy re-appeared. He joined me wordlessly by the door, popped a key in, and released me back into the night.
I made my way up Liberty toward the distant State Theater marquee. The world still seemed askew—no longer cryptic or foreboding now that the riddle of what everyone was doing downtown had been solved, just ugly, discordant, plain. Away from Main Street, things were a little less frantic. This was the stretch where all the non-profit groups set up camp. People were having fun. I felt outside it, outside of everything. My sub tasted funny. The oar was so heavy I thought of leaving it somewhere. I dragged it on the cement behind me. Flashlights glimmered in my face.
If Rachel and I were coming apart, it wasn’t because some vague supernatural force was prying at us; it wasn’t a vision; it wasn’t any mysterious changes that had crept through my system as I’d slept with her in my arms. Things were going to end because that’s the way life was—impermanent and shitty. I’d outgrown her. Or maybe she’d outgrown me. We’d have other relationships, and then those would end, too. There would be a day, I imagined, a few years down the road, when we’d see each other around town—at the Art Fair, say—and we wouldn’t remember any of what we’d shared—the beauty of it, the sacredness. No, for her all that would remain would be the sad memory of waking up in her bed alone late one Tuesday night, and that sadness, in time, would have turned to bitterness. She would be bitter with me. And me, what would I remember? The butchered roadkill deer I’d stumbled over and fell onto one night after leaving her house, walking up the hill to my van—the feel of its entrails and guts. Mopping Rachel’s basement, the stench of mildew and cat-piss. This nasty-ass foot-long sub.
How could this be the end? At the end of things, there always had to be a new beginning. But what was next? Maybe I could start gambling more heavily or make crank phone calls. I could take up heroin, or vandalism—crashing the oar through the front windows of any of the annoying boutiques I passed seemed a fine start to something grand. Then I thought of the glass and the mess and I just felt depressed and drained. Maybe this Don character had all the answers. Where the hell was Don when I needed him? Who the hell was Don? I thought of heading back to Main Street and hunting him down. He needed my oar, wasn’t that the scoop? No, Don needed nothing from me. The batty old bag had confused me for somebody else. Don didn’t even know I existed. Soon enough, neither would Rachel. I pitched the rest of my sub toward a metal forty-gallon drum and it thundered in.
The thought of heading back to the van and driving home filled me with lonely exhaustion but I knew the further I kept on up Liberty, toward the State Theater, the longer the walk back was going to be. Two blocks away, I hopped up on the Detroit Free Press box, unsure what to do and what to think. A white balloon bobbed by at eye-level. Why did this have to be the end for me and Rachel? No one had a gun to our heads. I could tell her the next day about this strange little fugue, how I’d felt we’d drifted and were losing each other, and how desolate the world had seemed without her. I loved her. I’d tell her that. I’d pledge life-long love to her; she’d return the same vows, I was sure of it. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I got a little giddy. Of course we could be together. Of course! It could last! The answers were simple and sudden. It was as though I’d thrown a cockpit lever and leveled out of a nose-dive two seconds from impact. How had I careened so badly? I’d had a bad dream or something; it had set me off, sent me astray. It was ridiculous. An over-reaction. A weird detour. Pre-Art Fair angst.
I sprang off the newspaper box and used the oar to pole-vault myself over two sidewalk squares. I started making plans for the next day. Rachel didn’t have to work, I was pretty certain. We could go out to Hudson Mills and have a picnic, bring Lila-dog along and let her run wild. Play gin rummy. Find a shady spot somewhere and get romantic. Rachel was so beautiful, green eyes flashing, so full of light and so full of wonder.
The oar felt as light as a stick of bamboo. I whipped it around like a guy whirling a quarterstaff in some late-night martial arts flick on Channel 50. Two kids about my age sat on the traffic island at Liberty and State in front of the State Theater, staring at me like I’d gone cuckoo. Most likely they were in from Ohio, helping their aunt set up her booth of hand painted oars. They’d always been warned about those Ann Arbor loonies; here was one in the flesh. I figured I’d finish my show with a little flourish. I charged toward them, swinging the oar in an arc over my head like a samurai swordsman. I let my eyes go wild, and bellowed at them, “Foolish mortals, welcome to the Art Fair,” then threw my head back in a fit of frenzied diabolical laughter.
One of them said my name. In my surprise the oar jumped from my hands and clattered to the pavement. Right away I saw that it was not, in fact, two kids from Ohio, but Seth and Tamera, two of my best friends. Seth said, “I’m glad you got my message. I’ve got a mission for you.”
I laughed. My head was still spinning. I told them I hadn’t realized it was them sitting there. They didn’t understand what I was talking about. Hadn’t my dad passed on the message to meet them in front of the State Theater? I told them no, no, I’d just been out walking, wandering around. I laughed because I couldn’t seem to explain how I’d ended up there.
Tamera gave me a look of concern. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “most definitely. Rachel and I broke up, but then we got back together.”
“Seriously? When did that happen?”
“Just, like, in the last hour, since I left her house. She doesn’t know about it yet.” I looked around, still merry at coming across my friends. State Street was as busy as Main Street had been, maybe more so. In Ann Arbor, these next few days were the busiest shopping days of the year. I asked Seth what he meant about having a mission for me, but he cut me off and said if I hadn’t gotten his message, I probably didn’t know about the surprise.
I told him I didn’t know anything about any surprise or any mission. “Young man,” I said, “you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”
“You have explaining to do,” he said. He touched the oar with his sneaker. “What’s up with that?” Then he stopped me, “Wait, wait, let me guess. I’ve got it. You ever start feeling like you’re up shit creek without a paddle—hey you’ve got a paddle!” He broke up laughing and Tamera and I laughed with him.
Tamera told me the surprise—Mike Kozura was coming in from East Lansing. They’d arranged to meet him in that spot, in front of the State Theater. He was due any minute. I became pretty excited. I hadn’t seen Koz in two months; for us that was a really long time.
Then Seth got serious. “Listen, Davy. You know that book I’ve been telling you about, First Light?”
“Yeah. The guy you’ve been reading. The U. of M. guy.”
“Right. Charles Baxter.” His voice grew lower and more constrained. “Okay, today I went around, looking for a copy for you. I hit Dawn Treader, Wooden Spoon, and the other Dawn Treader on South U. None of them had it, right? I even checked out that new place upstairs from Wazoo. You been up there?”
“Don’t bother. It’s lame. Anyways, I was going to give up, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Dawn Treader on South U., they had one of his books of stories, I thought maybe I’d just get that.”
“Man, why don’t you just let me borrow your copy?”
“No. I want you to have your own.”
“What about David’s Books?” I asked him. We were sitting right outside the place.
Seth said, “Wait, you’re getting ahead of me.”
I pointed up to the bookstore, on the second floor above Discount Records. “If you can’t find something at Dawn Treader, sometimes they’ve got it up there.”
“Wait! Okay. I went up there. They had it.”
“They had it?”
“Yeah, but wait. The thing is, the thing was, it was like, a first edition or something, autographed. They wanted fifty bucks for it.”
“Fifty bucks? Those bastards! I’ll buy it new at Shaman Drum. Whatever. I don’t need a first edition.”
Seth looked me in the eye. “It’s nice, though. Hardback. Very handsome.”
“The words inside are the same, man. I don’t need it. Fifty bucks, you know how far that goes at Pinball Pete’s? Look, don’t worry about it. When’s Koz getting here? And what was that shit about a secret mission?”
Slowly, slowly savoring the moment, Seth raised his right arm, outstretched, and pointed, past all the people hammering, sawing, setting up tables, up toward the building at the corner and the same windows of David’s Books I’d just pointed to. I thought for some reason that he’d spied Mike Kozura and was pointing him out. He smiled wickedly.
“What?” I said. “I don’t get it.” And then all of a sudden I did. One of the windows of David’s Books, up on the second floor, right where he was pointing, was propped open about ten inches with a block of wood. I said, “Oh, I see.” Immediately I sized things up. The window was close to twenty feet off the ground. Underneath it, the big storefront signs for Discount Records and Stucchi’s Ice Cream next door looked like they might provide a steady perch, but getting up even that high was going to be a challenge. Regardless, the streets were crowded with people. The time to pull this off was four a.m. on some quiet, deserted night, not in the midst of this hullabaloo. That would be completely nuts. I was impulsive but not reckless.
Tamera was gauging me. She said, “You don’t really have to do it.”
“Sure he does!” said Seth.
“No,” she said, “That’s messed up. Don’t make it like a dare.”
“It is a dare.”
I glanced down the street one way, then the other. I peered up at the window for a time. Five miles west, down the same street, Rachel was alone under the covers, toasty and soft. I could have still been there. I shifted forward on the curb and said quietly, “You think I can’t do it?”
“I dare you,” Seth said.
I looked around again. My thinking changed. Maybe in a way this was the absolute perfect time to pull this stunt. On a regular night, if someone saw me scaling a wall downtown and wriggling through some second-story window, they’d ring 911. But here in plain view in front of a hundred people, who would think anything of it? I thought of the way my friend Jeremy Fisher used to walk out of Target with CD players and television sets balanced on his shoulders; cool, like he owned the place. Meanwhile, other kids were getting nabbed by Security for slipping Tic Tacs into their socks. My dad had taught me long ago how to get into the movies for free over at Briarwood and Showcase—he’d just head toward the ticket-taker and walk right past them as though they weren’t even there. If they called out after him, he’d glance back, mumble something like “It’s all right,” and give a little wave. If you looked like you knew what you were doing you could get away with anything.
Getting up to that window, though, looked like it could be a problem. I’d need more than a boost from a friend. Was there a way I could brace the oar against the wall and climb up high enough to grip the Discount Records sign? Not really, though it occurred to me it would have been a sweet bit of luck if the oar I’d been lugging around for no reason had ended up playing a key role. Too bad I hadn’t snagged a grappling hook from the van instead.
I turned my head and the solution was there across the street. In front of Crown Liquors, a guy was rigging up a black-and-white checkered awning, standing on a sturdy seven-foot wooden ladder. Things clicked into place. I told Seth I needed him to describe to me exactly where the Charles Baxter book was inside David’s Books.
He said we could see it from where we were. Right outside the open window, a pink-orange streetlight craned its head high like an inquisitive giraffe, casting a rich glow inside. Seth had stuck First Light back on the shelf sideways; he pointed it out to me, there on top of the other books.
I was going in. I told Seth and Tamera I had a plan and gave them instructions. In a minute they’d have to pretend not to know me. Whatever I was doing, I couldn’t have them staring up at me. I didn’t want to create a spectacle. When I came back down they weren’t to say a word to me. We’d meet fifteen minutes later in the center of the Diag, on the concrete benches in front of the graduate library, right by the brass M.
“Are you sure about this?” asked Tamera.
“Bring the oar,” I said. “Grab the oar for me and meet me at the M.”
Time for business. I turned away from them and walked back down Liberty a block the way I’d come. At Thompson I turned around to face them again. Seth and Tamera sat exactly where they’d been when I’d first come up the street, but now they formed a more colorful tableau: boy, girl, oar. Two other kids came up from behind them—Eric and Stefan Peterson. They’d probably heard that Koz was coming in, too, and were there to meet him. Seth and Tamera started talking to them, explaining, perhaps, my mission, and what I was about to do.
I myself wasn’t really too sure what that was going to be. My stomach tumbled and my heart was tight, but I didn’t feel nervous exactly, just excited and intensely concentrated, like an Olympic bobsledder before his final run. I limbered up and took a few deep breaths. Then I dropped into a sprinter’s starting-line crouch, counted ready, set, go, and dashed up the street toward Crown Liquors.
Seth, Tamera, and Eric and Stefan Peterson paid me no heed as I rushed past them—a good sign. I stopped below the ladder. Out of breath a little, exaggerating it, I called up to the guy standing on top, “Hey, listen. Could I use this for a minute?”
The guy was stretching a hand as high as he could, trying to pin a corner of his checkered awning to something out of reach. He peered down. “What?’
“Your ladder. I got to use it.”
“I’m on it.”
“I know. Come down for a second.”
“What?” The guy came down. He wasn’t too happy with me. I was already working under a deficit.
“Listen,” I said to him, “my dad left his keys in the store. He needs me to get ‘em.” I sucked in a couple of breaths, as though I’d run quite a distance. I was purposefully vague. “I’ve got to get ‘em and bring ‘em back to him. He’s waiting. He needs ‘em.”
The guy looked at me like I was crazy. I recognized him now. Three weeks earlier Peter Chin and I had been in Crown Liquors and Pete had tried to buy a bottle of run with a fake ID. This was the guy who’d been working the register who’d chased us away. He didn’t seem to make the connection. “What keys?” he said. “What are you talking about?”
“His keys. He left ‘em up in the store. He told me right where to find ‘em. I just got to use your ladder to get up there.”
“Get up where?”
I pointed across the street, up to the open window of David’s Books.
“Your dad works over there?” He was skeptical.
“Yeah. You probably know him. He’s got a ponytail, gray hair, glasses.”
“What’s his name?”
The guy frowned. It was clear he didn’t know who I was talking about, but for some reason it seemed important to him not to let on. “Yeah. I know your dad. He’s all right.”
I asked if I could use his ladder, just for a minute. He stared up at the open window and thought it over, but told me at last that he didn’t think the ladder would be tall enough. I pled with him to at least let me give it a try. He shrugged and told me to go ahead.
Before I could make a move for the ladder, though, someone came up close behind me and covered both my eyes with their hands. I picked up a light bubble-gum scent. A girl giggled in my ear. “Guess who?”
It wasn’t Rachel. That would have been too crazy. But I couldn’t quite tell who it was. I said, “Mike Kozura?”
“Nuh-uh,” she sang.
“I give up.”
“Okay, let me think. Satchel Paige? Alexander Haig?”
The hands came off my face and I turned. Smiling there was Griffin Lindsey, the prettiest girl in my school, a friend of mine, and a friend of Mike Kozura’s. “What’s up?” she said. “You here to meet Mike?”
I hesitated. The guy from Crown Liquors crept closer. I said, “Uh…no, see, my dad just sent me down here to get his keys. He left them up in the store.”
Griffin was confused. “The store? What do you mean?”
“You know,” I said. “The bookstore. David’s.”
“What? Where? Up there? Your dad doesn’t work at David’s Books.”
Her words left a little vacuum of sound behind them like a missile strike. The guy from Crown Liquors looked at me curiously. All at once he appeared to recognize me from my visit with Peter Chin. His eyes ticked down through a mental progression—minor in possession of rum; ladder larceny; bookstore burglary. His neck reddened. If Griffin had blown my cover I was going to be very upset with her.
I gave Griffin a quizzical look. “Didn’t I tell you what happened to Manny? No? His wife, she was having that problem again. He finally drove her down to Akron. They’ve got some of the top specialists in the world down there.”
Griffin was looking at me like I’d broken out in some rare Mandarin dialect. The liquor store guy was still along for the ride, waiting to hear where I’d go next, now that I’d painted myself into the corner.
“Anyways, with Manny gone for who knows how long, Phil asked my dad if he could, you know, come back and work a couple of shifts, just Manny’s shifts, ‘til he comes back. Actually, Phil took Manny’s shifts, and I think he got my dad to work his shifts, until Manny comes back. If Manny comes back.” I paused. I looked over at the guy from Crown Liquors, and back at Griffin. “Say, you know, have you two met? Griffin, this is…this is…”—I blinked at him and snapped my fingers—“you know, I am usually good with names but right now I just cannot think of yours.”
“That’s right, that’s right. Griffin, this is Earl, good friend of mine, a generous man with ladders. Earl, this is Griffin, student, jazz bassoonist, human being.” With that, I went to Earl’s ladder, lifted it with both hands, and headed across the street.
On the traffic island, my friend Brande Wix and three girls I hardly recognized had joined Seth, Tamera, and the Petersons. Brande called out my name but Seth tugged him back. Mike Kozura, when he arrived, was going to have quite a reception.
I set the ladder up by the doors of Discount Records and climbed to the top. Earl, the liquor store man, was right; the ladder wasn’t tall enough. Just to reach the top of the Discount Records sign would require what my friend Dan Zatkovich, the rock climber, would call a “dynamic move”—in other words, a desperate flying leap. From this proximity the sign looked much flimsier that it had from the ground. If I jumped up to grab it, chances were fair that I’d rip it off the wall and we’d come crashing down together.
There didn’t seem to be any real alternative. I glanced down at Griffin and Earl. They were watching me and laughing about something. In a way Griffin’s arrival had been perfect—her company would buy me some added time and patience from Earl while Iworked out a route to the window. Brande and the girls he’d brought were watching me, too. Why hadn’t Seth and Tamera told them to ignore what I was doing? The whole idea was not to attract too much attention.
I looked up at the Discount Records sign. Could I make it that high, springing from the top of the ladder? Why was I doing this in the first place? Because of a dare? I tried to figure out what was really at stake. Fifty bucks? A book? My pride, maybe? Much more than that, it seemed. What did I want? What was I afraid of? I had no answers. The ladder teetered under me. I knew if things with Rachel hadn’t been so tenuous, I never would have gotten myself into this kind of predicament in the first place.
But I wanted that book! I couldn’t explain it; I didn’t understand—but I wanted it more than anything. I felt somehow that if I could get up there and get it, everything else in my life would work itself out and fall into place.
Before I had time to re-consider, I made the leap. The sign creaked and tremored but held. Slowly, I pulled myself up on top of it. The surface was grimy, littered with dark, petrified bird droppings and dozens of moth carcasses. I made it to my feet, sagged against the building for a moment to dust off my hands and catch my breath, and then worked my way gradually toward the open window. I was struck by the night’s odd symmetry, sneaking down from Rachel’s room and out of her house, and now an hour later climbing up again, into David’s Books.
At the far end of the Discount Records sign, there was another obstacle I hadn’t anticipated from below. Down on the ground it had looked like only a couple of feet separated the Discount Records sign from the one for Stucchi’s, but I could see now it was more like a yard and a half. I would have to leap across—another one of Dan Zatkovich’s “dynamic moves.” But this one was crazy. I was high up now. I could seriously injure myself right here.
The Art Fair fray had quieted a bit. I noticed that here and there along the street, people had stopped to watch my progress. Griffin and Earl were still staring up, I shifted my feet carefully and craned my neck back to check out my friends in the State and Liberty intersection. Now there was a crowd of twenty, all of them blatantly gawking. Beyond Seth and Tamera and Brande stood a kid named Johnny Red, who was a friend of Mike Kozura’s from East Lansing. What was he doing in town? Beside him was Michael Halama, another member of Koz’s E.L. posse, and behind the two of them, Mike’s girlfriend Rebecca and her roommate Jen Tubbs. And then there he was, Mike the K., the fella himself, a bit off to the side from the rest of them, made shy, perhaps, by the turnout his visit had elicited. Our eyes met. He flashed an almost imperceptible smile, and then, casual and cool as a third-base coach putting on the sign to steal home, gave me a quick thumbs-up against his chest. I felt a rush of excitement at the unpredictability of things. Half and hour before I’d been alone and dismal; now I was performing before a crowd, my closest friends in attendance.
Buoyed, I began to shift back around to make my leap, but from around the corner at that moment strolled two uniformed patrolmen, their heads tilted back, curious to see what everybody was staring at. I turned away and busied myself with the wall, as though I was gussying up the brick for the big crowds the next day. This was exactly what I’d been afraid of from the start—a bunch of spectators drawing the cops’ attention. It was almost as though my fear of it had somehow caused it to happen. But I wasn’t sunk, not yet. I kept on like an idiot, pantomiming an inspection of the wall and just trying to look natural, balanced at the edge of the Discount Records sign, eighteen feet off the ground.
“Son, you all right there?” I looked back over my shoulder. The beefier officer had taken a few steps closer. “What are you doing up there?”
I tried to come up with a reasonable response, but nothing floated to mind.
“Come on down here,” he said.
Christ! I had to say something, anything. “Keys,” I called down nonchalantly. “Don’s keys.” That alone didn’t seem to satisfy him so I went on. “Lots of big moths. Dead moths. Don’t worry, I’ve got it. It’s fine.”
The cop looked perplexed. He turned back and exchanged looks with his partner.
I saw an opening. This was all straight textbook from lessons my dad had given me. Confuse, confuse, then conquer. I shouted to the cop, “Free Sun Chips, sir. Charles Baxter. First Light.” A dramatic pause, and then, as though it explained everything, “Art Fair!” I gave him a brief little wave—the one my dad had taught me at Showcase and Briarwood which I’d perfected over the years.
A radio crackled from the policeman’s belt. He nodded to himself. He tugged at his ear. He scratched at his belly. Finally, he said, “Be careful, then,” and turned away and motioned for the other officer to join him. They headed away down State.
Now it hardly mattered if I kept my cover. I didn’t want the guy from Crown Liquors—Earl—wondering why I’d brought an entourage if I’d just come by to get my dad’s keys, but he was too engrossed with Griffin to really be alert and get suspicious. I called out for Seth to bring me the oar. He and Johnny Red moved the ladder under me, and Johnny Red, who was the taller of the two, scaled the ladder and stretched the oar up to me. I set it down so it made a bridge from the Discount Records sign to the one for Stucci’s, then sat down on it with my back against the wall and scooted across. On the other side I lifted myself to my feet by the open window. I figured with my luck the damn thing would have some kind of locking mechanism on the inside that prevented it from being opened any further, but when I gave that window an upward push, it slid easily. It wouldn’t stay up on its own, though. I held it open with one arm and wriggled through.
Inside David’s Books I was immersed in the streetlights’ pink-orange glare. The air was eerily still and musty with the smell of old books. The sounds of the street were muted. I felt a strange stirring in my chest, as though I’d entered a great holy place. I moved a step or two back from the window. I felt the close presence of another and for a moment was spooked, but then realized it was only the Charles Baxter book, sideways on its high shelf, making itself known.
I took the book down. My heart felt cramped. Unidentifiable parts inside me clicked and whirred. What was happening? I looked the cover over; it was ordinary and unrevealing. On the title page, Charles Baxter had signed his name neatly with a thin black pen—no inscription, just his name. The next page bore an epigraph from Kierkegaard: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. The words, though I hadn’t even processed them, dealt me a sudden, powerful blow to the solar plexus; I dropped to my knees, scrambling for breath. My legs flipped out from under me and deposited me on my back in the middle of the aisle. Was this a heart attack? Could one strike you at seventeen? I stared toward the ceiling and rode out the palpitations in my chest. Shelves towered over me like angry adults, leaning in, conferring, deciding my fate.
Rachel, I knew all at once, was no longer a part of me. She was very simply gone. It was as hard and solid a fact as the autographed, first-edition copy of First Light grasped tightly in my hands. I gasped and with great waves of sadness and joy watched her vanish from me, as a tiny boy might gaze after a fugitive helium balloon as it dances up and away from him, higher and higher above the trees, until at last it melds with the sky. A stillness descended. My body grew calm.
I lay there perhaps only three minutes but it felt like a stretch of days. I had the tender reminiscences and dark regrets of a man marooned at sea. Tears burned my eyes. A wild hunger ripped at me, then passed. It felt like I was observing a furious thunderstorm from a great distance. I longed to be nearer, and at the same time I knew soon enough I would be in its squall. I rested in my breath. The floor rocked me gently.
I stood at last and moved through the store as though still in a dream. I floated down a set of stairs to the street level exit but the door was bolted. Back up at the top of the stairs I came face to face with a tiny window which looked out on the back alley. I pushed it open, squeezed my head and shoulders through, and held First Light level for a second in my outstretched arms before letting go. It took a long time to land, then smacked the ground with a sharp thunderclap. I returned through the store’s dark narrow aisles to the radiant front window, and climbed through to the Stucci’s ledge. Sound whooshed back in. Mike Kozura, swinging a length of rope, called up from below, “Hey! Grab this!”
The world felt in harmony. I had only a minute before they reached me, but I sat myself cross-legged on the brass M and cracked the book and started reading from page one. I was filled with hope. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I knew I’d embarked on a new path, that somehow I’d discovered this new thing. I kept reading until the parade overran me.
Things advanced in stops and starts. I was on the ground level again, handing the ladder to Earl. I showed him my keys to the van and said they were my dad’s, I’d retrieved them, and thanks. Someone asked me where the book was. I shushed them and said, “Meet me at the M.” Next I was in the alley, clutching First Light to my chest, and then I was streaking through the streets toward the Diag, triumphant, whooping it up, running faster and faster and faster. I stomped on the M with both feet, glorious as a World Series hero reaching home plate after a twelfth-inning home run.
From the corner of the Diag, on bike and on foot, came the parade of my friends, their friends, and others they’d picked up along the way.
“I love the art, though I use the term ‘art’ loosely.”
“Are you kidding? Art Fair sucks!”
A third person, “It’s not Art.”
A fourth, “And it’s not Fair!”