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Post Road Magazine #33

What Ray Had

Robert Chibka

Ray had these friends who conceived later in life—mid-forties. Hadn't felt ready. High-risk, tense amnio, low birth-weight, blessed event, such a relief. Ray had concerns: toward retirement, hormone-&-hip replacements, say a bypass or two and plenty of doctors' orders under their belts, the kid, a boy no less, would be in shouting distance of high-stress high-school years. And frankly, which is not unfunny 'cause the guy's name was Frank, Ray didn't have a clear idea if he'd have the, you know, whatever, for that.

Ray had this colleague whose infant died in its sleep, weird 'cause the guy's name was Sid. He and wife Sam never got over it, never had another, couldn't stick together, Sid-'n'-Sam, Sam-'n'-Sid, sad, never remarried. The never-getting-over-it, Ray thought he fathomed. The not-remarrying, he wasn't sure. The never-having-another to him made sense.

Ray had the idea you shouldn't have one if you weren't prepared for beyond what the word worst conjures in your so-surprisable mind. Say yours was born with gray matter outside skull; liver there too, spleen in plain view, pancreas glistening, someone irrigating constantly lest organs lose their sheen, rubbery as deli markdowns, so it never leaves neonate intensive care, eerie 'cause you chose the name Nicky before you even knew, high-beam fluorescents the only lights that'll ever glint off this frontal lobe, which by the bye also doesn't work, so at six weeks, on presumptive but excruciatingly slow-motional deathbed, kid has the intellectual capacity of a three-minute-old, basically knows two things—how to panic, how to cry—and just for good measure, the parts that allow for continuous, undrownoutable vocalization of distress are among the few properly situated and in robust working order. If you're not ready for that (the idea Ray had continued), you're not ready. Only in your case, first time ever, it, let's say she, Nicki with an i, survives, peabrain princess who'll never be dressed just enduring under some custom-made wail-echoing cheese-dome that sprays organs on a timer like supermarket produce. Uterus there, too, inside-out like a used sweatsock—which stupidly embarrasses both parents more than all other organs combined. And you're in hock over your eyeballs just for delivery, you'll never pay off birthing fees, plus NICU up the wazoo; what agents insurance and governmental, denying payment, call catastrophic ("Nick you!" you mutter, hanging up hard on yet another functionary); you think, from that day forward, you and your partner, if he/she even sticks around for catastrophe's fallout, will ever once catch a show, squeeze in nine at the local muni, skip town for a weekend, finish bricking the patio? Get real. But the worst (the idea Ray had concluded) would be having knowingly to dread the day you'll become aware of wishing little Nicki (for whose sake?) had never been born, a naked euphemism for were dead.

Ray had a thing about being called Raymond. The whole name, he supposed, meant King of the World: Ray, king; -mond, of the world, right? Now Ray had that DiCaprio slut trying to seduce someone else's betrothed by showing off with unsafe horseplay on a restricted area of the unsinkable liner's upper deck forever mixed up with his self-image. Not that that made a lot of sense (hello! that's why he resented it). Plus this highly popular sit-com with the guy named after sheep's-milk cheese. So yes, if it was OK with everybody, and despite any advanced degrees he'd worked hard for but might just as soon forget he had, Ray preferred plain Ray. He'd just have to live with the "drop of golden sun" jokes.

Ray had had a college girlfriend, Steph, who out of the blue started calling him Raymond so he knew something was up; late for her Periodical Misery, she hoped both syllables would prep him for superadult-style responsibilities. Tried that and that alone—Hello Raymond Do you really think so Raymond Raymond you're such a hoot—for a week before telling him what the deal was really. Turned out her hormonals were kaflooey, was all. Ray had loved Steph, far as he knew, and wasn't so mean-spirited as to hold irregular endocrinality against her, but couldn't believe she'd take so round-the-barn a route to sharing what-she-mistook-for-knowledge with whom-she-mistook-for-her-about-to-be-life-mate. Breaking up, he called her Stephanie for the first time, and for once the prefab phrasing wasn't merely rote: it did hurt him more than her.

Ray had no patience for whiners who thought their stupid little lives were the all-time ultimate in unbearableness. Could they take half a minute or two to think about virtually all historical humans, including circa 99.999% of their exact planetary contemporaries? He understood where they were coming from. Felt like that himself sometimes. But come on, folks.

Ray had sufficient time to think things through on his museum-guard job; had wondered at length and serially, e.g., what most guardlike action might ever be required of him. Wasn't like he carried a weapon. Freak in Europe once took a hammer to that hot Michelangelic mama with the dead savior on her virgin-smooth marble-cool lap. Barring such incidents, which, face it, never happened, it was mostly oversight: gentle reminders, directions to restrooms, Matisses, gift shop. Sometimes he was expected to know arty, docenty things, but not often or much; Ray had a drab security-guard uniform on, not suede-elbow-patched tweed or rakish beret.

Ray had a preference for statuary, well-rounded works made to be circled (and when circled, frequently providing the payoff of simulatedly shapely buttockses, smalls of backs), not stood before and stared at, static head atilt. Plus, kids with sticky paws were less drawn to paintings, so sculpture (besides offering superior washability, no small virtue in an artwork on public display) brought his shift focus. He liked how statues woke little ones up, made them feel less out of place, though he disapproved, personally and professionally, of their inclination to mount and clamber jungle-gymly. Ma'am, could you get your child's sneakers off the Art? Sir, please monitor your offspring. Progenitors, control your progeny! Guard not always the picture-perfect term; scold, many days, was more like it.

Ray had to raise his voice maybe twice a week, on average. But Ray had inkled an inkling that if he stayed in this position long enough, he'd have to do something more security-oriented, less larynx-centered. Hard to imagine getting muscular with kids, though he interacted with them more, more directly, and more effectively, on account of being brushed so often off by their folks. Ray had to suppose, like a little-league umpire, he'd likely be stood up to or worse at some point by unruly toe-to-toe parents.

Ray had parents—one still alive—who would never have needed barking or even glaring at by any uniformed stranger with a half-bad back from standing at the peripheries of galleries like half-a-statue himself so many hours so many days. Not that they were disciplinarians. But they inculcated, they instilled, you know?—and always never didn't pay some real, some honorable and honoring attention.

Ray had a history of being enjoyed by small fry. They tended, in fact, from say two till say ten, literally to glom on, strapping arms like a gunslinger's holster round his leg (kids themselves, then, holster and gun both, whom Ray refrained from slinging but would treat if parents didn't seem to mind to a ponderous giggly pachydermal gallumph around a room's perimeter). Friends said it was something about his sense of humor (which did incline toward the infantile). Ray had a different theory, implied above: attention paid. That was all anyone—babies, elders, statues, ecdysiasts, prime ministers, arch-villains, most deities he'd heard tell of, Steph, and for consistency's sake he'd have to say himself—really probably wanted.

Ray had, as if you didn't know already, himself no offspring. But Ray had given this matter no little thought.

Ray had had sex averaging four-five times a week, rain, shine, or overcast, for the last thirty-four years (with a partner, if seeing one; otherwise, without external assistance). Of course Ray had wondered—at least since Steph, who shook him up, not by being fertile (or, it turned out, not) but by being so not-who-he'd-thought-her, morphing to so sidelong, belowboard a person—had wondered, had Ray, what if he, at twenty-eight or thirty-two, or more recently, forty-one, had inadvertently jump-started an ovum. But the issue of issue hadn't arisen outside of woolgathering (or theory, if you prefer) for decades now.

Ray had been going with Gwen going on six months. Serious was a word he'd use if asked, as he did when he was, by his mother, happier to hear it than he'd seen her since before her husband's death. She even made (least typical utterance ever) an off-color comment—"I hope something is"—when he told her nothing seemed hard with Gwen.

Ray had pretty average looks—alert brown eyes, mind-of-its-own brown hair, well-tended brown beard, scruffy brown freckles on taupish skin—average height, weight, recorded on driver's license (corrective lenses required, which he carried around on a standard nose in thin wireframes that on and off pinched behind par-for-the-course ears). Ray had done some research around college age to determine he had, as well, pretty average masculinity, and given how comfortable that was or wasn't in trousers all day long, felt about that the way his Age of Milton prof told the class Dr. Johnson felt about Paradise Lost: no man wished it longer. Gwen, on the other hand, had the usually sterling hair, eyes, lips, hips, backsmall, belly, labia, smile, &c, unshaven (to Ray, really appealy) underarms, plus knockout temperament, drop-dead-gorgeous mind, attitudes Ray thought you could live a good long happy time with. Her nose's tip moved this way and that when she spoke feelingly, reminiscent for one who loved her of a bunny Ray had back when everyone deemed his sense of humor age-appropriate. (Way wecognized being weminded of a wabbit by one's adult partner wasn't ideal, but what options had he?) Her curlable toes pointed a smidge inward when she stood in one place for any length of time, in a way he found (surprise!) adorable. His growing affection was attaching him to a number of things like that about her person and demeanor which, both knew, could cut either way. He suspected her of reciprocity in this regard, though he couldn't have guessed which of his neutral tics-'n'-traits she'd elevated to cherishability.

Ray had this art teacher in college, fast talker from Brooklyn, always seemed aping Gilbert-&-Sullivan lyrics with his comma neglect (these days it'd be rap, if lyrics was the term for such wall-to-wall not-so-melodic wordsprings). So this guy, with his urgings and his strivings and his doomed but strenuous efforts to make surly, yearning undergrads take a nonStarTrek enterprise seriously, used to say once you've made it you can't change it you can start over stretch and prime another canvas place your first anchor mark elsewhere work in different directions switch media or retrace each stroke to revise the last tiny yellow flick that went a slight smatter awry but can't change what you committed to without building up some conspicuous impasto effect that wasn't the change you had in mind so before you daub think people Think! Since, when Ray had a situation, he'd tell himself to "think people Think!"

Ray had two so-called advanced degrees, but nothing professed by anyone in any course that had lent credits to either had sunk and stuck like "think people Think!"

Ray had no more qualms about the procedure than Gwen, at least in theory aka woolgathering (neither knew yet about fact). They didn't need to euphemize, to talk of elective termination or a gender's right to choose, identify as pro-this or pro-that. Words didn't frighten them, and their convictions weren't the kind that shifted when a situation affected them personally.

Ray had had (middle school, years before Steph) a hard time getting his first kiss off and running. What, Ray had feared, if she didn't want to? You couldn't just zoom in, eyes shut, lips apucker. He'd lit upon a tried-&-true stratagem (thinking it his original invention—well, it was that, too): the Subjunctive. His exact words, now lost in the landfill of history, were along the lines of "If I thought you might want me to kiss you right now, how far off-base would that be?" Now, it is true that Gwen's actual factual subjunctivized formulation, momentarily reminiscent for him of that stratagem, was "What if I told you that . . .?" Ray had, however, not the slightest doubt that she was not the sort of adult woman to be using a teenaged boy's cowardly (if, in the event, wholly successful) trick.

Ray had done plenty in his life; that wasn't the question. Never felt the need to shoot rapids or snorkel reefs, trudge stony Athens or bob about Venice, amass a portfolio, finish a basement, work on a forehand, bet on a horse.

Ray had to think. "I'm sorry," he said, "I may have to stare at you for a while now. OK?" Gwen shrugged, smiled daVincially, busied herself with a book. He did, then, stare, as if right through her toward plural futures to assess relative merits. Gwen, disarmingly beautiful—did you not get that from the thumbnail of her averageness?—made it hard to think people Think! Ray had such fondness for looking at her in general, could catch himself slackjaw-gawking like oldtimey GIs at barracks pin-ups. He made, therefore, a concerted effort to picture organs strewn, networked by bundles of veins and nerves like work-stations' wiry clutter. Put himself in the picture, plugging, detaching, purging, clamping, tubes, shunts, the livelong day; night, too, irrigating liver, so purple it was brown, canary gall bladder, splendid dove-grey in- and exvolutions of her once-teeming brain.

Ray had no illusion that that—organs fanned like a bridge hand—was how any disease or condition really worked; regardless, her being so appealing a mess of innards, scarcely less pretty (to him!) in grotesque fantasia than sitting intact under a reading lamp halfway through something, suggested a need for other surroundings. "I have to think people Think!," he said. Gwen understood; she had needed, still did, to do the same. Who wouldn't? She was out of town tomorrow; work. Day after, then? What shift was he on?

Ray had to be in by eight. "The early, all this week," he said. "Meet for dinner?"

Ray had to admit Gwen was righter than liquid precipitation: they should have this talk not while eating, not in public, not downtown. Eight pm, then, her place.

Ray had yet to hear, he realized halfway home, what her subjective right to choose would ("if," as she said, the case were the case) subjunctively choose. She'd put this topic on the table, and they'd tabled it, was all.

Ray had, had he not, invented the ne plus ultra peripheral-organs scenario with reference in the first place to babyhaving, and the current question (Ray had to add apparently, even so many years after the Steph fiasco) concerned, did it not, the same; yet Ray had mind's-eyed not some embryonic eyegleam's interiority spread out like picnic provisions on a blanket but Gwen's own, as if—Ray had to look into this as well—the question weren't, or maybe even wasn't, carrying-to-term-or-not anything but their love for one another. And though he knew children could be conceived in love (in which Ray couldn't not hear Gettysburg echoing), he didn't confuse one with the other, organisms with affection, fertility with feelings (as a nation's dedication to a proposition, even if at times lived-up-to, didn't make nation and proposition interchangeable).

Ray had a bone to pick with clichés about surface and depth, depth being the good guy and surface excessively, you know, superficial. Ray had a job that reminded him every minute how the right kinds of surfaces could knock the stuffing straight out of you.

Ray had seen, speaking of stuffinglessness, trees hollowed by bugs or fungus, multi-ton arboreal organisms, barely more than bark at the base, poised like ballerinas decades on tippy-toe, more fantastical than sci-fi. In decline, but only biologically; upright as ever, spatially speaking. Ray had a strong strong feeling about that, but what kind—admiring, pitying, some indecipherable third present-participle alternative? Uh huh; that last one.

Ray had an easier time than you'd think getting to sleep; had, in fact, no memory of ever having been readier (not in an unpleasant way either: sleepy, not weary) for bed.

Ray had touched statues before, early and late, when confident no one save the cyclopsical gallerycam was looking. (Did this urge differ from that of unruly children with parentally neglected paws all over museum pieces? It did, he felt sure, but how?) Ray had been raised near an ocean, so it wasn't that stone could be so smooth that impressed him. Sculpted woods, too—such arcs and angles, some with centuries-old cracks and crevices cleaving into clefts and crevasses, sad of course but no less beautiful for that; on the contrary. Ray had, as you see, though modernized most ways, a preference for the older ones that, even before they'd have moved you by dint of longevity, drove right up to the front door and rang a viewer's bell, stimulating beauty-receptors head-on, not bristling them up with the rusty, serrated, or spiky, raw geometrics or choppy unfinishednesses. He didn't need Art to make him think; he had a plenty restless brain for that. What the made thing could do that his brain couldn't, at least didn't on a regular basis, was (forgive, if you can, the cliché; he wasn't at his most lucid this morning) transport him. From? Toward?

Ray had, then, shortly after eight, left hand's fingers sequentially trailing certain ravishingly well-formed curves, male and female both, and no not disproportionately the undraped or naughty parts. The caressive gesture, rehearsed and rerehearsed before nine-o'clock opening (repeated each time with a lint-free cloth to remove any oily deposits—one difference in action if not impulse twixt him and the brats), was loving, moving, but not, for him, erotic. He wasn't thinking the statues were Gwenlike, meditating on their nonexistent internal organs, theorizing illusion's nature. Ray had no idea; was, in a good way, unthinking. Maybe what Art could transport him away from was thought. Even to him, that sounded way too easy to think—see above re shallow surface/depth tritenesses—to be anywhere near truth. (Again, he wasn't, understandably, this morning, thinking, even about not-thinking, all that clearly.)

Ray had heard stories—plural in source, likely true—about that woman over there's, the Curator of Contemporary Sculpture's, ex, a kind and clever man who in a midlife month without warning turned affectless, hence cruel, toward her and took up with a (handsome, but not more so than she) woman half her age. Post-excruciating-divorce, he was found to have a species of tumor in a particular brainy locus that does this exact thing to men and their families: not cluckworthy turpitude, but a diagnosable condition. Not the familiar pattern sketched by laundry hung out in court; another. Was character nothing more than a summing over time of such—emotional investments, moral commitments, words of honor, functions, like everything else, of pressure on ganglia, neurotransmitters, lesions? Of course, Ray had to admit, they were. Relief, or greater torment, for an ex to know that? (How about for a half-her-age successor?) Oh, PS: inoperable.

Ray had, see, now, with not hands sliding over stony haunches but eyes fixed on a living object of empathy in whose presence he'd do no such thing, started cogitating up a storm. So maybe yes, transports away from nothing more original than thought; a notion's familiarity needn't breed contempt. Annual questions, perennial verities: trite-and-true. Still, Ray had his doubts.

Ray had, had had for a while, half a mind to approach the CCS, mention her misfortunate midlife, convey condolences for a thing so jarringly unforeseen, undeserved. Of course, Ray had no standing. Plus, she wouldn't want his pity, other than which Ray had nothing to offer. Plus, did she even know the whole world, down to folks like Ray, had been apprised of her sad plot-twist intimacies? Plus, just his luck, she'd probably be one of those sometimes otherwise not unintelligent people who'd affirm, with a grin you might call with equal cause beatific or shit-eating, that "everything happens for a reason."

Ray had, speaking of reasons, none to suppose one of those crazy tumors might be fixing to sprout in his inoperable brain at any crucial developmental moment in any potential mate or hypothetical offspring's life. Still, the CCS seemed not irrelevant. Likewise, big old hollow trees still living. Yet these mixed modifiers, dangling metaphors, or some other high-school-English phrase—these highly subjective and literally pathetic but possibly fallacious correlatives—weren't getting him straight on the whole Gwen deal.

Ray had to think people Think! Or had better not. Most likely, had both.

Ray had (you know this) a parent still extant, the female; today, he sort of wished it were the other way around. No ill will toward Mom, who was great, but honestly, Dad, if you could have gotten him to talk at all about a matter of seriousness in a tone of same, would be more help in a situation that called upon you so clarionly to (&/or not to) think people Think! because less (sorry, Ma) mindlessly (which is what people seem to mean by "unconditionally") supportive. He'd say something like: Ray, you have to consider this, Ray, you have to consider that, Ray, you have ahead of you x years actually no one knows but actuarially x, and Ray, you have reason to y and every incentive in the world to z, but Ray, if w is what you have to do, then w, Ray, w with all your bleeping might.

Ray had doubts whether his personal might would prove so all-fired bleeping, but knew what Dad would've meant by the phrase and appreciated the imagined sentiment.

Ray had a money clip bequeathed him by that selfsame father. A confirmed wallet-carrier, Ray had no use for money clips, which he thought gauche, vulgar, and any number of near-synonyms. Ray had an aversion to this item for three reasons: its tasteless shape (a dollar sign); its ironically, underminingly cheap plating (goldoid); its self-advertising-self-aggrandizing moneyclipness (the sum, really, of the first two, but his aversion seemed powerful enough to support three reasons).

Ray had yet to tell his mother he wished she'd take it if for her it held a scruple of sentimental value. But could it? The clip was nothing like his father, not the man in the world of least peccable taste, but neither bottom-line type nor status-seeker and in fact a fairly inconspicuous consumer.

Ray had no idea why he felt he should level with Mom about the clip before eight tomorrow evening. Not even so much should as had a feeling he would. So on the way from work, he stopped for take-out and showed up bearing her favorite, mu shu, and the noodles that were his. When he revealed the truth, Ray had a surprise: her husband had detested that pardonherfrench morceau de merde. She shuddered, a reed in a freshet.

Ray had a question: why then did Dad carry bills in it, it in his pocket, every livelong day of his reasonably livelong life? He had it from his father, said she, his fool's-gold-plated showoff of a pappy, and wouldn't feel right about trashing it. "The old fool."

Ray had less interest in whether she meant to call his father or father's father an old fool than in that tone applied to either. He'd never have called her sentimental or submissive, but Ray had noticed, since her spouse's death, his mother spoke more freely, less cautiously, more candidly, less appropriately. Had this whole new increasingly devilmaycare lexicon and timbre lurked, suppressed and subvocalized, throughout forty-nine years of successful marriage (she'd opened grief's floodgates by saying aloud, "Fifty years next March; fifty years, Ray, oh oh oh"), or been conjured by his passing? Ray had a leaning toward the latter: a new profile compounded alchemically in the crucible of loss (a third possibility, some rare widow-preying brain tumor, never occurred to him). He liked her better this way, he thought, but that wasn't the point.

Ray had an idea. What if they, he and Mom, smashed the thing that represented, to both now, Dad's false sacred-kowtow to legacy's whim?

Ray had never seen her so decisive. She carried the clip in two fingers like a dank dead mouse to the sink, stuffed it through the rubber ruff, ran her never-so-noisy disposal, whose longlost manual had no doubt enjoined against precisely this. Both shrieked as it mangled the tinny accessory. When she pulled it out, the clip, snapped in the center, looked like a couple of beat-up cent-signs, short change for their dollar. She handed one to Ray, flipped the lid on the kitchen garbage, and they gleefully put their two cents in.

Ray had no urge to analyze why that gesture afforded such gratification (nor the corollary that not only Art, but artifactual destruction could short-circuit thought). Worth noting in passing, though: this magma-deep catharsis shared with his mother was something brand-spanking-new.

Ray had nonetheless no intention of consulting her on the crucial Gwenocentric question. Instead, had some heartless gratitudinal glimmer (reversing his prior position) that Dad wasn't around to be consulted, 'cause if he had been, Ray might have.

Ray had only admiration for Gwen's job as a hospital-based social worker. She found families in their most difficult times, when even what might be relief couldn't be known as such, their least capable times, when repeated and rapid-fire decisiveness was required but stymied stasis would reign without external help, and gave some navigational aid, guiding through shallows, mapping submerged obstacles, making stiller homes livable in diminished ways. She could solve or point to solving a myriad of practical problems, and those only, but that was large if very local; at such times, laws of perspective were amplified, the very near bloating to blot out anything more distant. Ray had first-hand knowledge of how she undertook this so-useful work he'd never known existed before he saw her do it; it was, of course, how Ray had met her, when it could first be seen (by Gwen, not yet by them) that Mom had to figure how to live without Dad, that Ray had a few things to reckon as well. God (just an expression), how he loved her!

(Ray had a bit of a startle, noting such directness, such candor, in his free indirect discourse.)

Ray had had qualms aplenty about approaching his (more technically, his father's and then his fresh-widowed mother's) social worker, grafting a personal branch on a professional stalk. Why should he even trust his interest in her to be an interest in her, he'd conscientiously wondered, when they met under such circumstances, he so needy and thoroughly a son, she so competent and consummately a professional in a profession where professionalism encompassed empathic eye-contact, softness of expression, La Gioconda's smile, a cultivated posture of deep caring, and no doubt some powerful mechanism, once out of the hospital, for turning all that off and cutting clientele loose? Was it his own interest, then, or hers, Ray had not trusted to be trustworthy? No matter; that little problem dissolved when Gwen, who knew file folders' worth about him and his situation while what he knew of her and hers wouldn't exhaust an index card, called and asked how he was holding up. Or was it "getting along"? Or "hanging in"? Something in her tone (one of several things he knew her to be full professional mistress of) clued Ray in that she was off the clock. (Time of day—10 pm—might have been another tip.) For tenths of a second, he pondered situational asymmetry, professional ethics, and personal preferences before transitioning into the mode they'd been in ever since.

Ray had a need for love. So did Gwen. Who didn't?

Ray had precious little patience for plain neediness, frantic birdy pecking at every seed or bug for sustenance (in an adult—he wasn't, now, weighing any newborn). But Gwen, you know, Gwen wasn't just anybody, as near as he could determine so far and as far as he could tell at his current proximity. And Ray had to assume he wasn't, for her, either, any old seed or bug.

Ray had no clear picture of old age, of who or what might care for him if and when he couldn't, whom or what he might care for when and if he still could. Vague, not unpleasant notions of curating and being curated, mutual cleaving for better and worse because of (not despite) widening splits along the grain—those Ray had.

Ray had, again, to the surprise of everyone except unconscious him, no trouble at all losing consciousness. (Vague glimmerings as he drifted off, though, once again registered that he seemed to see himself seeing the issue as Gwen-'n'-him, him-'n'-Gwen, tea-for-two, two-for-tea, no third or higher-numbered party discernible in their déjeuner sur l'herbe.)

Ray had, next morning, a carillon-clear answer to a question he'd never expected would find one, that casual chronic woolgather regarding most-guardlike-action-ever-to-be-required-of-him-on-the-job. This, of all mornings, Ray had to take down an armed visitor; and it had to be, of all visitors, that swannish woman right there who looked about eleven months pregnant. Ray had sensed something odd, and when from her pocket she pulled a swivel-head potato peeler and brandished it, sidling toward the prize Modigliani, he realized what: she balanced like anyone creeping up on anything on feet's balls, not heels as physics would dictate were she gestating anything that advanced. Ray had to grab the peeler before tackling, lest someone (real or painted)—well, not get peeled, but maybe lose an eye. By then he knew she was faking, and Ray had split-second cocksure confidence the false belly she (for reasons ungraspable) wore would cushion (unless it were packed for reasons even less fathomable with high explosives) impact. It did, and he bounced up and down some atop her before fixing a firm half-nelson and asking nearby buffs to step, please, to the front desk and cause a call for municipal help to be placed. A Museum Board commendation would call him, weeks after the end of this story, a "model guard," but Ray had questions (and some answers) on his mind right now: [1] Would he have done it if he believed her really pregnant? (Yes, as a duty of his job, which hadn't involved swearing oaths to uphold and defend anything, but which he thought he should treat as if it had; he hoped he'd have sought, though, in that case, a way of making her land on him or at least her own ample backside); [2] Why Modigliani? (Per on-site interrogation by cops over to whom Ray had turned her: a trained art historian unable to find work in a glutted subfield, she blamed the painter she'd loved not wisely but too well to be swayed by market practicalities; Ray had a different hypothesis involving her strikingly attenuated neck, which meant not Amedeo but she resembled her utensil's target, and which at the least you had to suppose inclined her toward her research specialty in the first place); [3] A potato peeler? (Wrongly thinking an unhoned, less-edgy cutting tool would win her, foiled or not, a lighter sentence, she'd planned repeated hysterical pokings of the breathtaking canvas with its eye-extractor-tip); [4, 5, 6, 7] Why the gravid disguise? Did some superspecialized sort of tumor drive jobless Ph.D.s, after years of hyperstimulating certain visual-cortextual spots, to don such costumery and approach canvases with ill-concealed kitchen gadgets? But really, why affect this fourth-trimester look? Sardonic sartorial commentary by a certifiably operatic temperament on the cartoon life she fancied she'd traded for valueless credentials? (Answers still pending, believe it or not, subsequent discovery of her name, Nancy Praeger, making the entire affair, if even creepier, no more comprehensible).

Ray had a dusty M.L.S. himself, earned in featherbrained hopes you'd be able to continue in the field without constantly expanding megagigs of infotech expertise; this degree, combined with a couple of bucks, could now buy him a seat on the subway. Also an M.A. in Geriatric Planning, for which he was still not quite out of debt and had barely been able to stay awake (but perked up on learning post-gradly that the M.S. had just, at the relevant professional organization's quintennial jamboree and autorevamporama, been adopted as industry standard); same two bucks, same token. But did he go around peeling Modiglianis? No. Furthermore, had decided, in that job search's fruitless wake, you had to study what you loved not in prospect of pumped-up earning power but for the lovely love of loving it. To review: study, one thing; jobs, another, as for which, well—Ray had one, didn't he? For opera, including the hypersopranical assininities of the Nanciad, Ray had, as if you couldn't guess, no patience.

Ray had worn glasses since third grade, removing them only for showering, sleeping, lovemaking, swimming, and a week in high school after he (wiry shortstop, hard to believe now) took a line drive in the right lens. "Specs, absorbing impact, saved your ocular orbit," said the bedside-mannerly doc who injected, stitched, and bandaged that swollen temple. Now the problem was different: Ray had no known injury, but lenses, retrieved after dust settled by concerned artlovers, had popped out of wireframes so twisted they couldn't pop back in. He had both left and right, but would need, pending replacement, to hold one up before squinty eye like a jeweler's loupe to see a darned thing except, soon, his own knees (keep shirts on, we're getting there).

Ray had neglected (understandably distractible) to include in the above list [8] Just to prompt him yet more forcefully if no less fuzzily to "Think people Think!"? (Answer implicit in query: this adventure did nothing to focus, or should we say condition, but much to refract, or should we say frizz, the man's cogitational split ends). [8], settling, squatting even, in a brain that had the danger of indistinction made elegantly visible in the vision before its very eyes, nicely displays Ray's burgeoning bent to read his story as a story, events as vectored, plot-pointed, progressive, as if (to quote a knee he hated to see jerk) everything really did happen for a reason.

Ray had a tricky lumbar region, done no good by this incident despite Dr. Praeger's bouncy bogus belly. He stood kneading one node where every muscle, tendon, nerve, and ligament twisted to a tightening rosette, a twirly-vaned wind toy on a neuralgic stick.

Ray had no expectation of a speaking role at the news conference where he stood with Acting Chief, Chief Curator, and Arresting Officer, three enforcementy-looking uniforms surrounding one Italian suit, floral silk blooming from fertile breast pocket, odd 'cause his name was Hentger. Ray thought himself window dressing, one accessory piece of the Foil-A-Crime kit displayed before glare-shielded lenses, foam-jacketed mics. But a fuzzy Joyce Mendrazik, Channel 11—whose story would be headlined "Jobmarket Jealousy"—and a blurry Barry Spensinson, Channel 6—"Would-be Woman Slasher Slammed in Museum Melee"—and an ill-defined Lester Chin, AM 740—"A local museum guard threw caution to the winds this morning, tackling a pregnant vandal wannabe to the unyielding marble floor before learning she wasn't"—all wanted his version, or rather his glint on theirs. "Are you concerned about potential backlash from pro-life groups, Mr. Ferretti?" Ray had no such concern. "What if the child had died, Mr. Ferretti?" Did Ray have to remind them? There was no child—there was foam rubber and muslin, there was duplicity and intent to poke holes. "But Mr. Ferretti, if there had been, and if it had perished, what then, sir?" (Perished? Who spake thus?) Had been? There was no it to perish; the circumstances were wholly itless. "Please answer the question." If there had been? Answer that? Okey-doke. Let's say she stalked not a Modigliani but a water fountain, wielding not a peeler but a bouquet of decorative dried grasses gathered in Down-Under's outback. (Chief Hentger, itchy-fingered, intensely aware of being on-camera, fluffed his hentgerchief.) What if, instead of a museum guard, he were a medical researcher in his lab, and she a Chicago Bears linebacker in helmet and pads bent on curing lupus—what then? Ray asked, asquint, the assembled reporters of the factual actual. News might be entertainment, Ray had to concede, but not of subjunctive suppositions. He added, on impulse and without attribution, "Think people Think!" (And that, of course, was the clip that would air on screens around the metro area, edited to appear as an admonition regarding desecration of cultural treasures, impersonation of expectancy, or choice of dissertation topic, never journalistic standards.)

Ray had convictions and, at times, something approaching the courage of them. Mostly, though, right now, he had a lower back sorer, tighter, and more precarious by the minute, crumpling leftward as he stood unguarded at unguardlike inattention. The Chief Curator stepped in and terminated the conference, to the perceptible surprise of The Law, in the person of Acting Chief Johnson, who trooped reporters down the block to get his bite taped with museum as longshot backdrop.

Ray had no way of knowing whether the Chief Curator, with whom he had never exchanged more than nods, had intuited his pain level or disapproved of his tone (both). Before he could request the afternoon off, Chief Hanky (as one impudent custodian delighted in calling him) offered the afternoon off. My focusless retinas thank you, thought Ray, my sinister-tending spine and nagging nerve sheaths thank you; aloud, he just mouthed without troubling vocal cords to vibrate, "Yes, please."

Ray had (speaking of cords) this drawstring running left shoulder to foot, tugging tauter and tauter, gathering him into one big pantomime greater-than symbol by the time he reached his third-floor apartment. Ray had reluctance, now, to breathe deep lest something in there seize up and he be unable to breathe deep (hence, so often the case, fear of the thing plus consequent earnest attempt to preclude the thing amounted to the thing).

Ray had a hell of a time finding a position that didn't excruciate him that afternoon. Once he found one, he pretty much stuck with it; felt, in fact, as if he'd have to stick with it the rest of his born days. If you don't know which position that turned out to be a loose approximation of, review the story's motifs and Think people Think!

Ray had—lying on his left side staring at a crystal-clear close-up of his right knee, the way hairs came down to just above it and reappeared just below it, same deal on the sides, like trees around a house lot, cottages around a pond, half-unsettled by this odd aper├žu but consoled to have anything, even his own patella, within his depth-of-field—yet more time than he'd expected to have, this day of all his days, to follow the urging hurled your way at the end of the prior paragraph.

Ray had as few qualms about death, personal or genetic, as anyone you know (but you don't really know Gwen, do you?). He accepted it as an essential part of the deal he'd accepted (not that he'd had a wide choice in the matter): you don't get a digestive system without elimination, a forest floor without leaf litter, a lifetime without a deathtime, a species without extinction. Maybe on the eponymous bed he'd crumble (his father hadn't, and his mother wouldn't, so don't hold your breath), but so far it didn't appear to color his thinkpeoplethinking the way it did many others'. It was something, Ray had a feeling, about singular/plural, aggregate/atom. Being one among globzillions of biological expendables didn't terrify, daunt, or even bother him more than it didn't most others, he was fairly sure. Too bad, he'd thought, deeply, feelingly, untrivializingly, when his father died; not What a ripoff or Sheesh, Mom, who coulda seen that comin'?, certainly not Why not somebody who wasn't Pop instead of Pop? or In a better place now. No Malthusian, he was saddened to his least superficial core, but unsentimental about his own saddenedness.

Ray had a view of religion, in its metaphysical aspects, the way it was cleaved-unto and practiced (slash-neglected-to-be-practiced) by most people he knew of, as—despite plentiful rhetoric of thy-will-be-done submission to the omnidominant so-forth-so-on—largely an exercise in egoism. This first person can't be interchangeable, temporary, non-unique or getalongwithoutable, he believed believers believe beneath it all. Gotta be immortal, since any me-free cosmos sounds woefully understaffed.

Ray had no quarrel with, had indeed the highest respect for, many of the practical moral injunctions (though with others, yes, quarrels, lowest respect; regarding, for instance, proscriptions of things that hurt no one—not only, for instance, mutually-consenting orificial stimulations, but, for instance, human figuration in art—the way he saw it was, what the hell?). Ray had reservations, though, about the idea that to enforce such proper and sensible guidelines you'd need to offer any such bribe as life-neverending, without annoying or self-destructive habits but with rehydrated youth-tony muscles, plus if you order now special bonus better-than-ever-loved-one reunions.

Ray had to remember to ask Gwen what she thought of all this before getting too totally entangled. He had—did Ray—an idea what she'd say, but thought it best not to leave such things to guesswork when considering embracing major lifelongnesses.

[Ray had no sure (no sure) knowledge till well after the end of the story that Gwen felt (not in her spine, silly) and thought, if not exactly then for all intents and purposes, the same as he, and that without benefit of clerical or state sanction the two would live, soothing each other's cracks and crevices cleaving into clefts and crevasses, if not quite ever after, happily till death would them part.]

Ray had noticed, since Dad's death, a gesture of his mother's: tips of the fingers of the (oftener left) hand joined in milkweed-pod shape for a second or two, then letting go as if to release ready illions of crazy silk-chuted not-yets to the wind. That opening, relaxing, to the power of come-what-may he thought a beautiful image for . . . well, most anything. Ray had a bit of a startle when he realized that not the admired gesture itself but only his own metaphor for it was reproductive (at least, not knowing squat about milkweed, so he assumed—did any plant or animal do such outlandish or profligate things for any other purpose?). Damned hard to evade that whole clan of leitmotivational master-tropes, Ray had, curled like a little cotyledon himself while media outlets edited his old art teacher's tagline for maxed-up punchiness, to admit.

Ray had a hard time accepting that he couldn't remember whether Gwen, first time she called, had asked how he was holding up, getting along, or hanging in. Had a distinct memory of her kindly asking how he was verbing some preposition functioning as an adverb; wouldn't you expect a reasonably attentive person to recall the first-call phrasing of the love, if that was what she'd lately been becoming (Ray had increasingly the conviction that yes, it was, that yes, she had), of his life? Or if not truly to recall (who knows what one really recalls?), to settle on some viable confabulated excision of trivially different options to treat as truth?

Ray had to find the moral ethical social interpersonal call-it-what-you-will-&-stop-stabbing-at-it equivalent of the weedy gesture. That, though he'd never have consulted Mom on the topic, was what he needed to declare to Gwen: tips together, tips apart. Bit of double trouble, though: [a] not at all self-evident what that equivalent would be, [b] too much thinking (cf. disappointingly conventional discussion of Art above) wouldn't likely help. He understood his artificially-sweetened reading of what her fingers might mean required the big picture, that any single seedillion with its risibly identical coif might experience something like safe-haven-succeeded-by-tornado; but the wholehanded gesture was, Ray felt sure, a, if not the, key. Call it liberating, wasteful, splendid, harrowing, evasive, indecisive, irrelevant, what-have-you; what you call it isn't what Ray had to know. Despite being right then on TV all over metroland, Ray had no inkling of any broadcast or print audience, no conscious fear of judgment by anyone save—conceivably—Gwen.

Ray had forty-five minutes to get to Gwen's—yes, had had a couple of Advil-aided naps since his right knee got this close to his eyes a page or two ago—just long enough to walk, along the river of course, which, were he to do, no one—not you, not you, and not you—would be able to take as other than symbolic (but, people, of what?). Long, well-paced walking, Ray had been told by a physical therapist in the spasmic, crunched-up past, was the best thing in the world for the lower back, causing blood and other vital fluids to run freely round affected tissues, giving them a fighting chance to stop fighting and relax.

Ray had—curled in his (rest assured, primarily nonsymbolic, authentically organic, with moderate neurological impingement by a damaged disc's [L3-L4's] outpouching jelly, though Ray had yet to understand he'd transcended standard skeletomuscular discomfort for the excruciating higher ground of lumbar herniation) quasifetal position, and excepting the minutes consumed by aforementioned naps—a full afternoon of thoughts, cropping up like chronology more than plot, one another another another. You could never know them all, but can tell with a fair degree of assurance what most of them weren't. Ray had, for instance, no interest whatever in whether Nancy Praeger was experiencing neuralgic aftereffects as well, whether Chief Curator Hentger was working on getting him kicked upstairs or canned, how and when (either way) which worker's-comp provisions would kick in to cover how much of which if any medical expenses, whether Jerry Fleming of Cable 52 could beat Barry Spensinson's record three alliterative headline wordpairs, or much else about the big wide world. Ray had to talk with Gwen, period.

Ray had just one problem with (almost entirely nonsymbolic) riverside walking to Gwen's: he didn't think he could get out of bed. Actually, that wasn't precisely the problem; the problem was, he was right not to think so, bipedality not among his current skill-sets. Ray had no assurance crawling was, either—no locomotive confidence at all. Ray had, as well, that little problem with visual acuity: could he, if he could have walked, have walked holding frameless lenses like birder's binocs or sub commander's periscope?

Ray had to talk to Gwen, then, not period but semi-colon; had first to ask her to come to him. Which would in that case be mountain and which prophet mattered not at all compared to how unfortunate it was, at this stage in the proceedings, to be (and yes, you're right, also to appear) suddenly nearly newborn-needy. Had he the capacity to feed, clean, or wipe himself, the incapacity to perform other clichés associated evenhandedly with bare infancy and extreme senescence? Might he not as well (to exaggerate a smidge) have organs splayed like a canasta hand or fishmonger's display case? Yet Ray had, somewhere beneath deep detestation of hearing himself whine even at a moment legitimately calling for it, an expectation that all would work itself back toward the general direction of okay: he'd walk again (not today), they'd talk again (today) and again and again, and a meeting of minds (plus someday, once PT signed off, of bodies) would ensue. With the trivially agonizing ordeal of reaching for the phone, balancing it near the head after hunt-&-pecking buttons, you'll not be burdened. Of unsuccessful attempts to regulate shallow breathing into some semblance of meditative calm throughout the ruffling, unruffled ringing with which this paragraph concludes, you'll similarly retain full ignorance. His worries of being, thanks to one stupid postdoc Modiglianista's nutcake impulse, a permanent invalid—despite knowing diddly about discs, Ray had to be more and more concerned at how less and less like prior lumbar escapades this episode felt—likewise, not your problem, while Gwen's officious phone trilled and warbled in his ear's mazy folds.

Ray had rarely been late, never early, for any appointed convergence with Gwen. A half-hour before his so-predictable appearance, then, she might well be showering. I've hurt, Ray had therefore to recite to the machine with her voice in it (making him sound, to himself at least, oddly more pathetic than mere nonrecording coppery and fiber-optic wires might have done), my back. So sorry, Gwen, rotten timing. I promise, if I could stand right now, I'd come to you. But I guess . . . sorry, could you maybe come here? 'Cause I sort of need . . . um . . . Advil. Ray had, not painlessly, to chuckle at his own euphemism. I mean, I need you, he continued. (But also, if you could, Advil.) Okay. If you call back, I guess you'll get the machine, 'cause I can't . . . well, I'm okay, just sorry I can't, can't, uh, can't. Hearing the beep that humiliates the wordy, inarticulate, or in this case both, he did the unhappy hard work of returning receiver to cradle and labored to regain composure.

Ray had a feeling, post-hangup, he should have mentioned lack of visual acuity at distances greater than ten inches from his face as another reason why she couldn't expect him at her door, but calling back would send, no matter what he said, the wrong message.

Ray had further confirmation that every muscle, nerve, and sinew networks crucially with every other when he tried rehearsing Mom's gesture with his foggish left hand, out there at arm's end, twice as far from his face as these hi-def knees. Tips together: an incisive electricky charge, ear to buttock and back; apart: a searing implacable metallic ache in his shin. Shin? He tried again—shin!—once, twice, for the agonizing—shin!—amazement of it, then refrained, well convinced of the improbable thesis. For a while then Ray had delayed harmonic shivers through deep-down mandolin strings splintering any settled sense of what he might be made of. He would curl—though of this curling you won't be bothered by continual mention—ever more tightly right through to story's end, resembling fiddlehead fern, chambered nautilus, or worse: a walnut. Yes, he thought, that involuted, convoluted nut: just some blind brainshaped compilation of nutrient potential in an oily delivery system, partitioned by inedible membranes like paperthin flakes of sharp pine bark, domed tight in its ripply shell-skull, slightly heart-shaped, point rock-sharp, damned hard to crack. Unlikely totem (with which Mom had always baked half a batch for herself and Dad, the other half for allergic him without)!

Ray had, you know, a certain wheel-spinning tendency, metaphors spreading like scum on a stagnant pond, similes sprouting like mold on cheese. Yes, because such things—pondscum, cheesemold—signal not inactivity but hyperactivity at a dispreferred order of magnitude; for which probioticoid purposes lying on one side in impaired solitude examining a hairless knee's hairy surrounds was the perfect medium, miles better than agar agar. Ray had to prevent the microscopic from getting too many too secure handholds on the slippery cliff of . . . Oh, give it, thought he (in re the conceit-generating faculty), a rest; and for moments, almost till the arrival of his Nightingale in shining armor, did.

Ray had been seen by Gwen, who'd remoted the news on as she toweled off [shower hypothesis confirmed], heard "museum guard Raymond Ferretti," and tripped drippingly, doe-naked [Ray relishing the image], tubeward in time to see him (clearly, to Gwen, edited distortionally out of context) exhort Channel 11's viewership. He was "there," "with" her that half-second, then replaced by Joyce Mendrazik, thoughtfully repeating his injunction, nodding with studied concern, herself replaced almost as abruptly by a pair of Pontiacs spinning out in fleur-de-lis patterns on sparkling wet desert, hairpinning with scarcely less speed on unguardrailed mountain roads, sexy reckless backbeat all-but-insisting, "Don't think people Don't!" This so-strange experience redirected her (still naiad-nude [still Ray-relished]) phoneward (though he should by then have been on his way and neither'd yet conceded to wirelessness), where the flasher told her Ray had called. Well, cutting to the chase, the paragraph concluded, needless to say, "as fast as I could."

Ray had of course to deliver his day's abbreviated tale, starting at work ending in this walnutty condition, displaying as visual aid (that's funny) disenframed lenses like a brace of transparent pullet eggs, before hearing Gwen's. Ray had, in fact, a hard time getting Gwen to share hers before collaborating to determine a sensible plan of medical action, for the moment involving bedrest, heating pad, Nurse Gwen's attendance, and maxi-dosed ibuprofen. They joked that the drug's name sounded like a Swedish profession of faith, a Finnish marriage vow. Important part of that? "They joked."

Ray had exposited without annotating the hysterical Nancy Praeger caper before Gwen told her little celeb-sighting tale, and now felt virtually obliged to raise the appendicular possibility that the whole episode, potato peeler to walnut, might be (or, if not be, function as) how-should-he-say-without-blushing a sign—not a singing telegram from deities he didn't believe in, not entrails-reading (praegermancy, nancymancy), but maybe something up against which one was to measure oneself. "Like midway signs: You must be this tall?" No no, but but, a serendipitous occurrence say, as some figure in allegory runs smack into one embodying just that protagonistic quality in need of testing at such-&-such a crossroads in life's legible journey, or some video-gamer who'd give a kingdom for a horse, impaling some purple-striped fruit on his neurosaber, sees it morph into a ramping steed complete with bridle, stirrups, mad dressage skills. "But you're not some figure or some gamer, Ray." Treating life as art, she continued privately but didn't need to say aloud for him to infer, inclines toward superstition, invites delusion even, particularly of the narcissistic sort, which you, hon, really don't want at this juncture to indulge. Such exegetical possibilities went against both their grains (though this was time they'd scheduled to discuss their half-ton canary, an exegetical possibility par excellence). Ray had mentioned serendipity as if involuntarily—how shall we say, culturally?—the way you'd spurt "bless you" to a sneezer without archaically attributing expulsion of demons to such paroxysms, "pardon me" not only when thoughtlessly bumping into someone but when bumped into by someone thoughtless, the way a certain kind of person (than whom Ray believed he had more—what? integrity?) would assure the ContempSculpCur "everything happens for a reason" rather than dreading she'd spout such tripe in return.

Ray had, however, no answer when asked, then, if his literal run-in was a little message from the universe addressed to him, to read that message aloud to her.

Ray had to give Gwen credit for her response to his silence: "Darling, let's not be total idiots."

Ray had, "speaking of total idiots," to laugh, reporting to Gwen how reporters wouldn't stop invoking the precious helpless unborn foam-rubber-in-muslin fetality. "I bet," she said, "that's when you said 'Think people Think!'? Sweetie, you've no idea how Joyce Mendacious used that quote." Ray had, in fact, several.

Ray had never known anyone else Gwen-capable of taking what was for what it was or moving to change it, just as the situation demanded, without being detoured by the sorts of things likely to distract well-meaning and relatively hard-nosed but hydra-thoughted and frequently-figurativizing him. Convinced for a while of this analytic abstraction about her, Ray only now thought he saw what it meant: milkweed!

Ray had to endure wincing neuralgia to illustrate. "You've seen my mom do this?" he asked. Gwen had, she had, and cherished the gesture, since he asked, as a figure for possibly wise and usually fortuitous unclampings of every stripe.

Ray had told Gwen before (hadn't he? shouldn't he recall more photographically words passed between them? or was that, like most everything else about them, a good sign?) that he loved her, but never with such resoundingly baritonic conviction.

Ray had had his suspicions, as have we all, growing more or less steadily page by page, burgeoning even (the interior voice of someone a tittle less purple-prose-wary might have thought) despite pain, which he felt would surely pass, and immobilization, which he believed must be temporary; but now Ray had, yes, had, in a wonderful way no one might quite have expected, Gwen, who, after profening his ibu dosedoublingly, got down on no knee so he needn't crane anything and came right out and asked him then and there not to marry her, Finnishly or in any other tongue, in a manner he understood immediately—quite rightly—as Gwennish for commitment. He so loved viewing her even out of focus, but now that she was just inches past his knee, Ray had not a qualm in the sky about accepting her proposal on the spot: binding to them as any purchase-&-sale agreement, permanent as any I-do (more permanent, frankly, than half) in this sublunary realm. He only wished he could straighten to cement the deal with a near-normal hug, tracing as he loved (and she loved him) to do one index and middle up and one down the ferrule that ran, neck to small and beyond, then reversing, up-one down, down-one up, the ravishing length of her vertebral canal. Perhaps if he could just . . .

Ray had no idea how far beyond the power of Advil to help he was. It would take, long after we've all resumed attending to our lives instead of his, a magic epidural to pain-relieve him (symptom-removal giving jelly time to reabsorb, artificially disinflamed tissues half a chance, like heedful physicians, to heal themselves); physical (but no other) therapy to disencrunch him; and most importantly, Gwen some time to unfurl him—yes, forget shellcrackery, let him be a fiddlehead, not nutty or seedy or fruity but frondal, and let's don't distract ourselves contemplating spores either, because, people, and this is admittedly difficult, it never really was about what everyone, not just we—narrator hounding o'er hill and dale the scent of another's mind, or rather, take that foolish cliché back, a professional dogwalker leading leashed and heeling hordes nowhere in particular except out and back—assumed.

Ray had, whose story it after all was, as difficult, gradual, paradoxically abrupt a time as any of us possibly could have learning (if not so hard a time accepting) that this wasn't to be some lady-or-tiger drama, to-bear-or-not-to-bear an only child or eventual houseful. But but, you may argue (petulant perhaps in your disappointment, possibly pissy in your petulancy), that is the question; stories that start "Ray had these friends who conceived later in life" and "Ray had this colleague whose infant died in its sleep" and "Ray had the idea you shouldn't have one if you weren't prepared" and proceed as this one has done confer upon every reader (or canine, if you insist; no difference) the expectation of knowing beyond reasonable doubt where the center lies, where they are slash aren't headed. Without objection, so stipulated; everyone (again, not only readers!) has had that expectation; but expectation's no proprietary right, and even a recognized right-to-expect ain't money in the bank, and if events' suggestive course plus framing succession of pseudo-interior monologicalities and free indirections floated everyone (possible exception? the lovely but, to some, enigmatic Gwen) in the same unmoored dinghy, the management regrets any greedy sense anyone may have developed of being shortchanged by actually learning in the end what mattered, at the moment that for the moment matters, more, and what less, to those persons actually involved. Consider, if you will, ways lives work. Who knows what things are "about" till they turn out to have been "about" them? Not Ray.

Ray had pondered (this shouldn't surprise us) persons: first and third especially, since second, always implying a present audience whether one's there or not, struck him, however sincerely deployed, as inauthentic, performerish, at its core, like his inane proposal to read a herniated disc as if it were Tarot, saying what seemed the-thing-to-say. Ray had come, neither quickly nor lightly nor by easily traceable paths, to believe that first and third more nearly interchange than any of us is equipped to believe; that firsts are needed to fathom thirds, thirds to body forth firsts; that like body and soul, as most would have it, they(we) can't conveniently be separated. But let's, following for once Gwen's sage advice, not be total idiots: of course they can, and Ray had in any case no truck with such things as souls. Ray had to admit, they(we), firstthirds/thirdfirsts, are separated all the time, but had a problem with that, is all he(I) was(am) trying to say, if very far from all I(he) am(was) saying.

Ray had an inkling that many others—you, perhaps, for one or, with luck, more than one—went many other ways, not having, as Ray had had, to navigate such shoals of unknowing, leaky little nutshell boats ships in retrospect of fools, firsty thirds and thirdy firsts full of unsplittable split-ended hairs. But now he and Gwen made, it seemed to them and who are we to differ, a nicely plural first. Every plural first alchemizing thirds perceived by one another as seconds into firsts for at least limited, at most quite illimited, purposes. Magical—maybe most so because and when thirdness remains unobliterated in absorption. Like kids on statues, for whom he thought he'd now (if still not, which is to say not yet, for their parents) have more sympathy, wanting marble or metal or wood to become part of themselves (which settings, relative to characters, are not, but not-only-not).

Ray had hope, when Gwen predeceased him if he were to be so unlucky, that he'd manage to start, like his mother, mimicking milkweed (than whose sturdy, brittle, empty follicles a more yearningly graceful shape of loss could scarce by man or plant be sculpted) more often and convincingly; had, too, a complementary hope that when he, as seemed far more likely barring accidents or conditions lurking undiagnosed, died first, she'd find the spirit of milkweed, too (more accurately, instead). Meanwhile, though, he planned to try to resolve to curtail the search for totems and correlatives. Fiddlehead, a fiddlestick, he even in so many words inwardly admonished, as Gwen foraged fridge for what you'd call side dishes if that meant dishes edible while lying on your side.

Ray had no inclination, despite blurriness almost gotten-used-to already, to connect himself to venerables—Homer, Milton, Stevie Wonder—thought to see more clearly, deeply, or whole for their inability to see. He knew himself corrigible to 20/30ish, plenty good, whenever Gwen could drive him down for new frames. Likewise, the crunched and unwalking: FDR, Hawking, Reeve. No question, though, this myopic and nonambulatable afternoon had gotten him somewhere he mightn't otherwise have been.

Ray had herrings galore to sort: Frank-'n'-Sid-'n'-Sam, dull brick red, seemed at the time being to share the shade with Chief Hentger's hanky, Nancy Praeger's panky, the hair of Lester Chin's chinny-chin-chin, long-gone Steph, the CCS's ex's rejiggered brain, Dad's money clip, three-quarters of an hour unwalked by the river. Ray had, on the other hand, his own dear sterling mother, silvery for the moment as a fish could be and still kicking.

Ray had had it, he thought, up to here with sorting herrings out by hue. But, folks, aren't they all born red and stay that way unless later developments coalesce to opalesce and set them to navigating creeks and estuaries they were born to return to and, with long-odds luck, the infinite sea beyond? Round every corner, mere MacGuffins turn meaningful; vice versa round the next.

Ray had now the most exquisite out-of-focus view of Gwen's lower half as she bent deeply at the waist to pull a pound of carrots from the crisper. So captivating, it made him doubt for a moment what visual acuity was good for, anyway.

Ray had so little sense of, hence had to wonder, whether others, and if so how commonly, had spent, if not the best years of their lives because let's not go all melodramatic at the last possible minute, at least so many best parts of the hours and days (shall we say so much of the prime?) of their stories pondering, however ponderously or imponderously, imponderable issues, matters, master tropes, and organizing themes, that would in the end (or well before, he should have said, the end) prove, if not at all beside the point, not the point.

Ray had.



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