Chapter OneTHE MADNESS of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. Youcould feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low inthe sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Treesrestless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of thingscoming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthenedon yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaksrained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shudderedin the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer,the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in apaper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert hadcleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker loveseat.
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocraticsuburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair inwhich he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there wouldbe no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus inwhich infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pongtable, listening in vain for Enid.
Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfredand Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It waslike one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that sendschoolchildren into the street in fire drills. By now it had been ringingfor so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of"bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that youhave the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word youstare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead hearda clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but agranular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones;ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background exceptat certain early-morning hours when one or the other of themawoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their headsfor as long as they could remember; ringing for so many months thatthe sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall wasnot the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxingand waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousnesswas particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood.Then Enid and Alfred-she on her knees in the dining room openingdrawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table-eachfelt near to exploding with anxiety.
The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designerautumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enidwas realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red bythe manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that thesehundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars(potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarketthat doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. ExcedrinPM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical.The alarm bell had been ringing for years.
She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut thedrawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by Registered mailsome days ago. Alfred had heard the mailman knock on the door andhad shouted, "Enid! Enid!" so loudly that he couldn't hear her shoutingback, "Al, I'm getting it!" He'd continued to shout her name, comingcloser and closer, and because the sender of the letter was the AxonCorporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, and becausethere were aspects of the Axon situation that Enid knew aboutand hoped that Alfred didn't, she'd quickly stashed the letter somewherewithin fifteen feet of the front door. Alfred had emerged fromthe basement bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment,"There's somebody at the door!" and she'd fairly screamed, "The mailman!The mailman!" and he'd shaken his head at the complexity of it all.
Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn't haveto wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. But, try as shemight, she couldn't get him interested in life. When she encouragedhim to take up his metallurgy again, he looked at her as if she'd lost hermind. When she asked whether there wasn't some yard work he coulddo, he said his legs hurt. When she reminded him that the husbands ofher friends all had hobbies (Dave Schumpert his stained glass, KirbyRoot his intricate chalets for nesting purple finches, Chuck Meisner hishourly monitoring of his investment portfolio), Alfred acted as if shewere trying to distract him from some great labor of his. And what wasthat labor? Repainting the porch furniture? He'd been repainting thelove seat since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he'dpainted the furniture he'd done the love seat in two hours. Now hewent to his workshop morning after morning, and after a month sheventured in to see how he was doing and found that all he'd painted ofthe love seat was the legs.
He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brushhad got dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said thatscraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said that therewere crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but perhaps it wasonly the smell of gasoline and of the dampness of the workshop thatsmelled like urine (but could not possibly be urine). She fled upstairs tolook for the letter from Axon.
Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in thefront door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs-sincethe fiction of living in this house was that no one livedhere-Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn't think ofherself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferriedmatriel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governingforce. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at atoo-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paidbills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare co-paymentrecords and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from amedical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneouslyshowing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thusindicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address towhich remittance might be made. It would happen that the First andSecond Notices were underground somewhere, and because of theconstraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only thedimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any givenevening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but thegoverning force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a networknewsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, andhe had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligiblepossibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade ofcatalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statementswould come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's wrath.There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, sincethe governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to"pitch" the whole lot of it if she didn't take care of it, but she was toobusy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the successionof forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance oforder was lost, and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that wascamped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semi-detachedwould contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence-non-consecutiveissues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-whitesnapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper thatcalled for wilted lettuce, the current month's telephone and gas bills,the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers toignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentarycruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beveragesfrom hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children'sbirth certificates, for example.
Although Enid's ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerrillawas the house that occupied them both. Its furnishings were of thekind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and tables by EthanAllen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. Obligatory ficuses,obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on aglass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunder-enamelware from China,a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy everyso often wound up and raised the lid of. The tune was "Strangers in theNight."
Unfortunately, Enid lacked the temperament to manage such ahouse, and Alfred lacked the neurological wherewithal. Alfred's cries ofrage on discovering evidence of guerrilla actions-a Nordstrom bagsurprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly precipitatinga tumble-were the cries of a government that could no longer govern.He'd lately developed a knack for making his printing calculator spitcolumns of meaningless eight-digit figures. After he devoted the betterpart of an afternoon to figuring the cleaning woman's social securitypayments five different times and came up with four different numbersand finally just accepted the one number ($635.78) that he'd managedto come up with twice (the correct figure was $70.00), Enid staged anighttime raid on his filing cabinet and relieved it of all tax files, whichmight have improved household efficiency had the files not found theirway into a Nordstrom bag with some misleadingly ancient Good Housekeepingsconcealing the more germane documents underneath, whichcasualty of war led to the cleaning woman's filling out the forms herself,with Enid merely writing the checks and Alfred shaking his head at thecomplexity of it all.
It's the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventuallyto serve the ends of other, more desperate games. After Alfred retiredhe appropriated the eastern end of the table for his banking and correspondence.At the western end was the portable color TV on whichhe'd intended to watch the local news while sitting in his great bluechair but which was now fully engulfed by Good Housekeepings and theseasonal candy tins and baroque but cheaply made candle holders thatEnid never quite found time to transport to the Nearly New consignmentshop. The Ping-Pong table was the one field on which the civilwar raged openly. At the eastern end Alfred's calculator was ambushedby floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Centerand a device for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty yearsand never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for absolutely noreason that Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces a wreath made ofpinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil nuts.
To the east of the Ping-Pong table was the workshop that housedAlfred's metallurgical lab. The workshop was now home to a colony ofmute, dust-colored crickets, which, when startled, would scatter acrossthe room like a handful of dropped marbles, some of them misfiring atcrazy angles, others toppling over with the weight of their own copiousprotoplasm. They popped all too easily, and cleanup took more thanone Kleenex. Enid and Alfred had many afflictions which they believedto be extraordinary, outsized-shameful-and the crickets were one ofthem.
The gray dust of evil spells and the cobwebs of enchantment thicklycloaked the old electric are furnace, and the jars of exotic rhodium andsinister cadmium and stalwart bismuth, and the hand-printed labelsbrowned by the vapors from a glass-stoppered bottle of aqua regia, andthe quad-ruled notebook in which the latest entry in Alfred's hand datedfrom a time, fifteen years ago, before the betrayals had begun. Somethingas daily and friendly as a pencil still occupied the random spot onthe workbench where Alfred had laid it in a different decade; the passageof so many years imbued the pencil with a kind of enmity. Asbestosmitts hung from a nail beneath two certificates of U.S. patents, theframes warped and sprung by dampness. On the hood of a binocularmicroscope lay big chips of peeled paint from the ceiling. The onlydust-free objects in the room were the wicker love seat, a can of Rust-Oleumand some brushes, and a couple of Yuban coffee cans which despiteincreasingly strong olfactory evidence Enid chose not to believewere filling up with her husband's urine, because what earthly reasoncould he have, with a nice little half-bathroom not twenty feet away, forpeeing in a Yuban can?
To the west of the Ping-Pong table was Alfred's great blue chair.The chair was overstuffed, vaguely gubernatorial. It was made ofleather, but it smelled like the inside of a Lexus. Like something modernand medical and impermeable that you could wipe the smell ofdeath off easily, with a damp cloth, before the next person sat down todie in it.
The chair was the only major purchase Alfred had ever made withoutEnid's approval. When he'd traveled to China to confer with Chineserailroad engineers, Enid had gone along and the two of them hadvisited a rug factory to buy a rug for their family room. They were unaccustomedto spending money on themselves, and so they chose one ofthe least expensive rugs, with a simple blue design from the Book ofChanges on a solid field of beige. A few years later, when Alfred retiredfrom the Midland Pacific Railroad, he set about replacing the old cow-smellingblack leather armchair in which he watched TV and took hisnaps. He wanted something really comfortable, of course, but after alifetime of providing for others he needed more than just comfort: heneeded a monument to this need. So he went, alone, to a non-discountfurniture store and picked out a chair of permanence. An engineer'schair. A chair so big that even a big man got lost in it; a chair designedto bear up under heavy stress. And because the blue of its leathervaguely matched the blue in the Chinese rug, Enid had no choice but tosuffer its deployment in the family room.
Soon, however, Alfred's hands were spilling decaffeinated coffee onthe rug's beige expanses, and wild grandchildren were leaving berriesand crayons underfoot, and Enid began to feel that the rug was a mistake.It seemed to her that in trying to save money in life she had mademany mistakes like this. She reached the point of thinking it would havebeen better to buy no rug than to buy this rug. Finally, as Alfred's napsdeepened toward enchantment, she grew bolder. Her own mother hadleft her a tiny inheritance years ago.