Thompson is a writer attuned to the callousness of 21st-century society, its comedic elements, its misguided efforts to right itself, its often tragic results. She's culled the news and integrated it into her text, sometimes shooting ducks in a barrel and other times mining her characters' complex circumstances to shed light on their embittered souls. They are to a certain degree archetypes; they also exhibit vast reserves of strength and endurance. There's real beauty in the way Thompson has them serve one another, even if that loving service is often not enough. It is, however, deeply human.
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Year We Left Home, a dazzling new novel already being hailed as an "instantly addictive¿tale of yearning, paradox, and hope." (Booklist)
After surviving a shooting at her high school, Linnea is packed off to live with her estranged father, Art, who doesn't quite understand how he has suddenly become responsible for raising a sullen adolescent girl. Art's neighbor, Christie, is a nurse distracted by an eccentric patient, Mrs. Foster, who has given Christie the reins to her Humanity Project, a bizarre and well-endowed charity fund. Just as mysteriously, no one seems to know where Conner, the Fosters' handyman, goes after work, but he has become the one person Linnea can confide in, perhaps because his own home life is a war zone: his father has suffered an injury and become addicted to painkillers. As these characters and many more hurtle toward their fates, the Humanity Project is born: Can you indeed pay someone to be good? At what price?
Thompson proves herself at the height of her powers in The Humanity Project, crafting emotionally suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining characters, in which we inevitably see ourselves. Set against the backdrop of current events and cultural calamity, it is at once a multifaceted ensemble drama and a deftly observant story of our twenty-first-century society.
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You have to admire a book that focuses so tenaciously on big problems (poverty, violence, alienated youth) and manages to empathize with all its characters while refusing to sympathize entirely with any of thema bracing narrative stance and a tart political viewpoint. If you want an affecting tale about a bunch of sad sacks who manage to pull together to create something useful and find love and stability in the process, this astringent novel is not for you…Ms. Thompson has written an energetically mordant novel about our difficult times, a novel that doesn't pretend to have any answers, comfortable or otherwise, but that vividly, insistently poses questions we should be asking.
Thompson's thoughtful new novel ponders the sins we commit in the name of love and our capacity for compassion. The "detached" life of San Francisco bay area nurse Christie, divorced and in her thirties, is thrown into motion when Mrs. Foster, a wealthy patient, asks her to lead her charity, whose aim is to "benefit humanity" by paying "people to be good." Christie's neighbor, Art, already struggling with adulthood, takes in his troubled teenage daughter, Linnea, after she survives a school shooting in the Midwest. Though her move to California is not the quick fix Linnea's mother had hoped for, Linnea does connect with Conner, a teenage boy from another broken, troubled home, calling their bond an "accidental, lost-in-space collision" and the two of them "a pair of separately damaged goods." The disappearance of Conner's father finally brings these disparate characters together. Thompson (The Year We Left Home) asks what can we actually do to change the lives of others, and investigates the value of good intentions, finding answers in the emotional lives of richly-drawn characters who do what they must–and what they think they must—in order to help the ones they love. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Apr.)
"Fantastic … enormously satisfying … Thompson has a light, exquisite touch … rich, detailed, resonant, emotionally spot-on."
Bill Eichenberger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for The Year We Left Home
"An extraordinarily warm-hearted novel."
Jonathan Dee, The New York Times Book Review, for The Year We Left Home
What does it mean to be a good person? National Book Award finalist Thompson (The Year We Left Home) sets up characters who aren't happy or well adjusted, let alone "good," but who accurately represent problems within today's society. There are numerous characters, with no central player except Linnea, a teenager who witnesses a school shooting. Her subsequent behavior problems lead her mother to send Linnea to stay with her deadbeat father, Art, an adjunct professor with little ambition or connection to his offspring. Teenage Conner is suffering in a different way. His father has been injured in an accident and is now unemployed and addicted to painkillers; as a result, their home is in foreclosure. Art's neighbor Christie is a nurse entrusted by a wealthy, eccentric patient with running an odd charity called the Humanity Project. Its mission is unclear, but its benefactor wonders whether one can pay people to be good. The interconnections among these characters gradually unfold as Thompson develops the story. VERDICT This is not light reading; Thompson wants her readers to think about humanity, but she doesn't probe deeply. Though the story is well crafted, it's hard to become engaged, particularly because the characters aren't entirely likable. [See Prepub Alert, 10/22/12.]—Shaunna E. Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Seemingly everybody on the class ladder scrabbles for a definition of human decency in the latest from Thompson (The Year We Left Home, 2011, etc.). The novel opens with a penetrating vision of a lower-middle-class family sinking fast. Sean is a divorced, out-of-work handyman who's about to lose his Bay Area house and his grip on his teenage son, Conner; when Sean decides to meet a woman via Craigslist, the attempted one-night stand only leaves his body broken in a highway wreck. The bad news doesn't stop there: Nearby, divorcee Art is forced to take in his teenage daughter, who's become a disciplinary nightmare back in Ohio after witnessing her half sister's murder in a school shooting. After a stint of petty thievery, Conner does odd jobs for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Foster, who wants to do something with her late husband's largesse. So, she taps her nurse, Christie (also Art's neighbor), to run a nonprofit with a vague purpose and name: The Humanity Project. The worlds-in-collision setup is contrived, but Thompson's handling of it is superb and unforced. She wants to explore how much of our bad behavior, from lousy dates to murder, is hard-wired, and in Sean and Conner, she exposes how much our actions are grim functions of economic circumstance. Yet this book isn't preachy, and Thompson has a knack for rendering characters who are emotionally fluid but of a piece: A daughter of Mrs. Foster's who's outraged at her squandered inheritance is selfish, yes, but her despair about a nonprofit's ability to repair humanity is legitimate. Thompson caps the story with a smart twist ending that undoes many of the certainties the reader arrived at in the preceding pages. A rare case of a novel getting it both ways: A formal, tightly constructed narrative that accommodates the mess of everyday lives.
Read an Excerpt
Gray morning. He’d fallen asleep in front of the computer again. The screen was gray too. “Yeah,” Sean said. His voice was more awake than he was. He swung around in his chair. His son was standing in the doorway, tall, shaggy-haired, peering in at him.
“Yeah,” Sean said again. “OK, buddy.”
“You’re supposed to call that guy.”
“OK.” Sleep was racing away and for another second he let himself follow it, his mind unraveling back into a dream that still held him under some impossible weight. Then he pushed the dream away, shut off the computer, planted his feet, and rose to meet the god-awful day. “Conner? Do I smell coffee?”
“I got some started.”
“Thanks, bud.” Coffee, then he’d call that guy in Santa Rosa to see if he could get a few days’ work lined up, and if he couldn’t, well, that was the next heap of crap to deal with.
Sean got the first of the coffee into him, then dialed. He could hear Conner moving around upstairs, getting ready for school. The phone in his hand came to life. “Hello, Mr. Nocera? Sean McDonald here, I was wondering if you could use me today.”
He listened for a minute, then said, “Sure. Well thanks for your time. Have yourself a good day.”
Nocera had already hung up, but Sean heard Conner coming down the stairs, so he pretended he was still talking while Conner opened the refrigerator and the cupboards, found a carton of chocolate milk, peanut butter crackers, a banana, and a handful of Oreos, which was either a weird breakfast or a weird lunch. “Dad?”
Sean put his hand over the phone, shielding his imaginary conversation.
“I already fed Bojangles.”
“Thanks. Knock em dead out there.”
He waited until Conner was out the front door before he put the phone down.
Bojangles wanted in from the yard. He did his happy begging dance.
“Scram, you con man,” Sean said, and the dog went to his corner and lay down without complaint.
Another day of nothing stretched ahead of him.
He showered, fixed himself some eggs, then sat back down at the computer. The whole world was in the computer, if you knew how to figure things out, and you had to believe that somewhere out there were answers, solutions. Work and money, mostly.
He checked Craigslist for help wanted. It was the same old stuff— scams, mostly. Winter rain was going to start in soon and work would be even slower. He could fight the Guatemalans for landscaping jobs he didn’t want anyway. He could enroll at the community college to take computer courses and be qualified for a whole new category of jobs where no one was hiring. Last month he’d printed up five hundred flyers advertising himself as under windshield wipers in parking lots, came up with two jobs cleaning gutters and another hauling brush, and somebody who wanted a garage framed but didn’t want to pay white man’s wages.
He’d get by. He always had. Things would turn around and you wouldn’t feel like you were beating your head against the brick wall of the world. It wasn’t just him. Times were bad for everybody, everybody had it coming. He guessed he was just a little farther ahead in the line than most people.
Finished with the job listings, he let his fingers do the walking over to the personals. Women seeking Men. Like the help wanted, he’d seen most of them before . Princess looking for her prince. Where did all the great guys go? Friends first. Looking for something real. None of them attached pictures, which was smart, he guessed, but made you waste a lot of time. Here was a new one: Pretty Lady, 38.
Maybe not pretty. Maybe not thirty-eight. Who knew? Sean clicked, and read:
So how was your day? Mine too. I miss having somebody I can talk to.
If you ever want to get out of the house some night for a while, you can pretend I’m your best friend and tell me all about it. Me: normal in most respects. You: tired of reading these ads.
Well at least she had a sense of humor. Sean thought for a minute, typed in the address.
Hi Pretty Lady,
I hear you loud and clear. I’m a single dad. My son is seventeen.
He already puts up with enough of my griping. Not that you have to put up with it either. But yeah, it would be nice if
Here he paused for a long time. Nice if you could just lie down with a woman, have some naked good times, not worry about anything more. But you couldn’t write that.
I could get together with you some time and compare notes. I’m 45, work as a carpenter, self employed, meaning I’m broke most of the time, but I can always spring for a couple of drinks. I’m 5’10” and as for looks, well, dogs don’t bark at me. I’m free most nights, hope that doesn’t make me sound like a social reject, ha ha.
He signed it Sean, then sent it off before he changed his mind. She wanted to talk. He was hornier than an eight-peckered toad, but he guessed talking had to come before anything else.
He took his second cup of coffee outside and sat on the deck. The day was going to work its way into hazy heat. The hillside beyond his back fence was a tangle of manzanita and scotch broom and blond grass. So dry the least spark would send it up in flames and then he guessed it would be good- bye, house—that is, if Bank of America didn’t get to it first, but there he was getting down again, letting the negative thoughts in, and so he put his feet up on the railing and smoked a little pot just to take the edge off things. It wasn’t the life he’d planned for himself but it was the life he’d grown used to, it had its comforts, and it would be a sad and low-down thing if he got kicked out of it.
His phone rang. Sean dug it out of his pocket, stared at the screen. Floyd. “Talk to me.”
“What are you doing, pencil dick?”
“Want to help me with some drywall?”
“Whenever you can get over here.”
“Half an hour,” Sean said. Sat for a moment longer to clear his head, then stood and stretched, and even if his body was sending out its usual SOS’s (back, shoulders, elbow), he just had to get moving, work a few kinks out, tell himself he was thirty-five, not forty-five—well almost forty-six. Floyd would buy him lunch and throw a little folding money his way, a bad day turning into a not-bad one, and you had to have faith that things would work out eventually.
He called to Bojangles and the dog leapt up, excited without knowing why, followed him out to the driveway, and ran in circles. Sean opened the truck’s passenger door for him and the dog jumped in, happy all over again for no reason. Dumb dog. Sean checked the toolbox, grabbed a couple of Red Bulls from the fridge, and headed out.
Now that he had the day back on track, he was able to look out on the world with something close to pleasure. His house, his street, his neighborhood might be a little shabby, the whole town mostly a place where old hippies came to plant backyard pot and gradually fall apart, but he’d been here fifteen years now, almost all of Conner’s growing-up time, and it was home. He liked the who-gives-a-shit attitude of people who let their gut- ters drip rust, and strung Tibetan prayer flags across the front porch and kept too many cats. The younger ones he wasn’t so sure of, thought they were probably cooking meth or some other nasty business and Conner had better not ever get mixed up in anything like that, he’d beat his ass.
But live and let live and anyway, there wasn’t a sweeter place on the planet than Northern California, with its soft winters and golden grass and yeah he guessed he was still a little stoned.
Floyd was trying to get his house in shape so he could put it on the market. He was one of those optimistic people who thought you could still get money out of a house. Floyd’s house sat well back from the street in its own cruddy yard of foxtails and thistles. A pile of PVC pipe lay to one side of the driveway, along with two sawhorses and a sheet of plywood set up as a workbench. To the left of the house was scaffolding, and a blue tarp spread over the flat roof, and ten-gallon buckets of sealant. Also odds and ends like an orange heavy-duty extension cord snaking out of the openfront door, a nail gun, a roll of fiberglass insulation, knuckle-shaped pieces of gutter. If you didn’t know any better, you might think the house was being dismantled, not built up.
Sean parked and let Bojangles out to run around. Floyd was inside, in the bedroom at the end of the hallway. He’d taken it down to the studs and he was standing there like he was confused about where his walls had gone. He was a big guy who was going to fat, with a baseball cap jammed down on his ears and a beard that grew up practically to his eyeballs, so there wasn’t much actual face visible.
“I just love what you’ve done to this room.”
Sean popped one of his Red Bulls. “So, what’s the plan?”
“I can’t believe you drink that shit. It’s nothing but chemicals.”
“You get the sheets already, or are we going to Home Depot?”
“I got everything. We need to do the cutouts.” Floyd took his cap off, scratched and pulled at his ears, replaced the cap. “This house is gonna kick ass by the time I get it finished.”
“It’s going to be sweet, Floyd.” He would never get it finished and even if he did, it would still be a junky little undersized house.
They’d moved the first sheet into the room and leaned it up against the studs when Floyd asked, “You ever think about taking vitamins, you know, taking some of those formula kinds?”
“What kinds, the manly ones?”
“I’m just saying, it’d be nice not to have to get up and piss four times a night.”
“You really should get that checked out,” Sean told him.
“You mean that test where they shove a fist up your ass?”
“That’s the one.”
“Would you let somebody do that to you?”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t tell you about it. Let’s hit it.”
There was a rhythm to any kind of work and it always took a while to find it. You had to be patient with yourself until then, try not to bust up your hands or trip over your feet or break equipment. Just dig in, think it through, gradually let your muscles take over from your brain. He’d done plenty of jobs with Floyd. It made it easier to get to that smooth place where you used the least amount of energy to get a task accomplished. They sanded, did the cutouts for the electrical boxes, sanded again, then drove the screws, and even the first piece went up without too much of a fight.
Sean peeled off his sweatshirt and filled a plastic bowl with water for the dog, who lapped up half of it and then went back to sleep on the cement floor of the back porch. Floyd said who told him he could use his fine china for the damned dog and Sean said he’d had to look around a long time before he found anything the dog would consent to drink from.
It wasn’t a big room but it took them most of the day to get the drywall up, and that with only a couple of breaks for smokes and a quick lunch from the Taco Shack. Floyd brought out two Coronas and they sat in the patchy shade of the yard to drink them. Floyd dug out his wallet and handed Sean two twenties. “Here you go. Buy yourself something nice.” “You want me to come back and help you mud?”
“No, I think I got it under control,” Floyd said, and by that Sean knew Floyd couldn’t afford to pay him for another day’s work, probably couldn’t even afford the little speck of cash he’d come up with. Everybody he knew was broke. It was beyond depressing.
Sean said, “You know what we are? Modern-day peasants. The guys who used to live in mud huts and sleep in straw and live on potatoes.”
“Yeah?” Floyd considered this. “Potatoes?”
“Nothing but potatoes, come on, you know what I mean. There’s all this money in the world and it never seems to get to the people who do the actual work.”
“What are you, some kind of communist?”
“Sure, why not.” Communist. It had an old-fashioned sound. They hardly even had communists in Russia now. From where they sat, they could hear the noise of the freeway, a constant low-grade roaring, because the world never ran out of people going places, like nobody was ever happy enough where they were.
Floyd said, “What’s the news with the Bank of Asshats?”
“They get the house back.”
“Aw shit, man.”
“Yeah. Simple math. Only a matter of time.”
“Sucks,” Floyd said. “I mean, seriously, I’m sorry.”
“Can you get some kind of, I don’t know, negotiation? They give you more time to pay?”
“That’s what all us broke morons want.” It felt worse to say it. It made it more real. There were too many other things crowding in behind that he didn’t want to have to ask or answer, like where they’d go and how he could afford even such a thing as rent. He felt like he was losing out, like they’d changed the rules when he wasn’t looking and drained all the good luck out of the world.
“No, I got to get back to the muchacho.”
“One for the road.” Floyd repositioned himself in his chair, heaved himself upright, and headed for the refrigerator.
Sean took the extra Corona, which Floyd probably wouldn’t have of- fered if he hadn’t felt sorry for him about losing the house, well, what good was total economic ruination if it didn’t get you a free drink here and there. He checked his phone; no messages. He stood up. He’d done something unholy to his back. “Later, man.”
“Yeah, thanks for coming over. This place is really starting to shape up.”
He tried to call Conner on the drive home, got his voice mail. “Hey, let me know if you want dinner or you’re doing something else. I can stop and get us something.” The kid was probably chained to a video game some- where. Him and his friends lived their lives in front of computers. He stopped at the Safeway, wrote a check for dog food, milk, laundry detergent, orange juice, cereal, frozen pizza, frozen vegetables, lunch meat, bread, and a roast chicken, and wasn’t he a smart shopper because now he had two hundred and ten dollars in the bank and Floyd’s two twenties in his pocket and maybe another thirty of his own and that was the end of the line.
Conner wasn’t home. Sean filled Bojangles’s food bowl and watched the dog eat it up in nothing flat. Whatever happened, the dog was staying with them. He wasn’t going to be one of those people who left an animal tied to a tree, or took it to a shelter.
But maybe he was going to be one of those people who slid down bit by bit until you did things you never imagined doing.
Conner called and said he was at Tyler’s house and he was going to eat dinner there and hang out for a while. “What about homework?” Sean asked. Conner always got good grades no matter what he did. Sean only nagged him about homework once in a while because he figured that was part of his job. Conner said not to worry, him and Tyler were going to study for the Spanish test and the only other thing was speech com. He had it knocked.
So he fixed his own supper and ate it watching SportsCenter and then he did the dishes and got the kitchen wiped down and took two ibuprofen for his back. There were times he liked the feel of the house with nobody else in it but this wasn’t one of those times. He walked the circuit of the rooms just to keep his back from locking up, wearing a path in the sad sad carpeting that needed shampooing, but why bother when it wasn’t really his anymore. Ditto the window that didn’t open and the plugged-up shower drain and the leaking water heater, all things he could fix or at- tend to but what did it matter.
He tried to start each day with something close to a good attitude and by sunset he was always back down in the black pit.
He turned on the computer to check his mail. Pretty Lady, 38, had sent him a message three minutes ago.
Hi Sean, well here goes nothing. I’m heading out to Ted’s in a little while, you know the place? I’ll be sitting at the bar, the hair is short and blond, the name is Laurie.
Hi Laurie, sounds good to me. As soon as I can get it together. See you. Sean
Here goes nothing indeed. She might have sent the same message to the fifteen other guys who answered her ad. He knew Ted’s. It was a hike down the freeway in Novato and maybe a little more prissy and upscale than he liked. That might mean she just wanted to be a lady about picking up strange men she met online.
Sean showered, running hot water over the funky part of his back and pounding on it to loosen it up. He dressed in a clean pair of jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and a windbreaker. He’d said carpenter, she shouldn’t be expecting anybody in a suit. He texted Conner that he was stepping out for a while, and got the dog a rawhide so he’d have something to do while he held down his spot on the couch.
Driving, he tried to dial his expectations down to zero. If she was really ugly, he didn’t even have to say hello. Walk in, walk out again. Part of him almost hoped that was how it would turn out because then you were spared the stupidity of getting excited about something working out for once like it never did, and you just had to pour more attention and time and energy not to mention money into the situation before it crashed and burned.
He guessed it was fair to say his luck had gone bad all around, and that included women.
Ted’s had a bar in front and a restaurant in back, so there were a lot of couples in the entrance, dressed up and waiting for tables. Sean stood behind them, trying to check things out. The bar was a big half-horseshoe and not very crowded. From the doorway he couldn’t see all the way to the far end. No short-haired blondes in view.
Maybe she wasn’t here yet. Nothing for it but to quit acting like a giant chickenshit, go in and sit down, and he’d just pulled out a stool when she came out of nowhere, that’s what it seemed like, sticking her face in front of his and saying, “Hi, are you Sean?”
“Yeah, ah, Laurie? Hi.” They shook hands. She was kind of pretty. He ducked his head so he wouldn’t seem to be staring, and so he wouldn’t see her checking him out. But then, she must have already done so, must have thought he looked all right or else she’d be hiding in the john or something. He said, “I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No, just a couple of minutes.” She took the seat next to him. She already had her first drink, some kind of margarita it looked like, and that was another point in her favor since he wouldn’t have to buy it. She was wearing jeans and a short jacket that was made out of some shiny silver fabric, which was different and not in a good way, some fashion trend he guessed he’d been oblivious to. A little on the skinny side, but nothing he couldn’t live with. He wondered if that was really her name, Laurie, then decided it didn’t matter.
They smiled at each other. “So,” Sean began. The perfume she had on fogged his head. It didn’t matter what kind of foo-foo name they put on the bottle, it all smelled the same to him: perfume. “Did you get a lot of answers to your ad?”
The next second he wondered if that was an indelicate thing to ask, sort of like saying, ‘How’s business?’ But she seemed OK with it. Rolled her eyes and made a wry face. “I sure did. You’d think if you say, ‘Let’stalk,’ that wouldn’t be taken to mean, ‘Let’s screw.’ ”
“Ha, no, you wouldn’t.” He was mildly shocked at her saying ‘screw,’ then interested, then disappointed that she seemed to be ruling it out. “I mean, that’s not cool.”
Laurie—he had to remember the name—got some more of her drink into her, then put the glass down. She had a cute face—blue eyes, pert little nose, smiley smile. She could have been a cheerleader back in high school, the kind of girl who everybody says ought to be a model or an ac- tress or something, and maybe she tries that but it doesn’t happen for her. Her eyes and mouth had a stretched-out look at the corners, and it was likely that she clocked in somewhere north of thirty-eight. She’d put some kind of goofy silver-colored makeup under her eyebrows to match the jacket, which he still thought was a mistake. The jacket made you think of spacemen in old movies. “So, where you from?” he began gamely. “You a local girl?”
“I am now.” She laughed, like this was something funny. “I’m new in town, that’s one reason for the ad. Meet a few people, feel a little more grounded.”
The next thing was to ask her where she’d moved from, but just then the bartender came to take his order and Laurie said she was good for now and what he really would have liked to ask was what she meant by ‘grounded,’ since that was a different concept for the online community, a little bit of a stretch when it came to most people’s purposes. He got his wallet out to pay and decided there was going to be a definite limit on expenditures tonight.
“A carpenter,” she announced, before he had a chance to speak. “What made you decide to do that? Be that? I hope you don’t mind me asking.”
“No, that’s OK.” He was just as glad to have her steering the conversation. He was always afraid that something dumb was going to walk out of his mouth, and the woman would decide he was uncouth or just plain unfuckable. “I guess I kind of fell into it, you know, always liked the idea of building things, doing things with my hands. I took some community college courses in business, yeah, wheel and deal, be a big moneybags. So that didn’t happen—” He was trying to remember exactly why. He thought he’d just stopped going to class. “—and one job leads to another—” Sean stopped himself, checked to see if she was still listening. He thought she was. “I’m just your basic working stiff.”
“Well the important thing is to do what you love,” Laurie said. It sounded like she was consoling him for something, like he hadn’t quite made the cut in the cheerleader tryouts. “And you have children?”
She must have forgotten what he’d said in his message, or more than likely, forgotten which one he was. She finished the last of her drink and Sean looked around for the bartender. Two drinks. He was good for two, he decided, unless by then she was sitting in his lap or something.
“Yes, I have a boy, he’s seventeen and he lives with me.”
“There has to be a story there.”
“We’ll save it for another time,” Sean said, not eager to start in on tales of marital failure. “How about you, any kids?”
“Ah,” Laurie nodded. Her head bobbed in a way that made Sean wonder if the drink she’d finished was really her first. “That’s complicated.”
“It isn’t usually.”
Either she had not heard him or she was pretending not to. “Seventeen. I hope he doesn’t raise too much hell.”
“Naw, he’s a good kid. Smart. Focused. He wants to work with computers. I’m all for that. I don’t want him to get stuck in the same rut I’m in. Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Bony fingers.” The bartender came then and Sean said to get them two more. He twisted incautiously on the bar stool and his back flared. “Case in point.” He repositioned himself, trying to get the pieces of his spine into better alignment.
“Messed up my back hanging drywall today.”
“The thing about kids,” Laurie said, her gaze following the bartender, “is you think you know them. Have them all figured out. I mean, who else knows them better than you? Then something happens and you have to ask yourself, who are they? Did somebody, you know, like birds do? Lay a different egg in your nest?”
“What are you talking about?” Sean said. “Birds?”
“Sorry.” The silver stuff she’d put over her eyes was getting streaky. She smiled and he was distracted by the weirdness of her wriggling shiny eyebrows. “Sorry, I was just running off at the mouth.”
“Tell me more about your work,” she said brightly. “I think I’d like to hear more details. I find them interesting.”
“Yeah, they are. Somebody’s going to make a movie about it all someday.”
Her new drink came and she latched on to it in a way that made him consider she might have run her ad just as a way to subsidize her bar time. When she put the glass back down she said, “What I meant was, with birds, everything is instinct. Birds always know how to be birds. They don’t all of a sudden start acting like snakes.”
He was beginning to think she was either drunk or flaky or both. “Yeah, flying snakes, that would be weird.”
Laurie took a measuring look at the drink before her, as if it was part of the conversation. She said, “Do you come here often? I haven’t, up until now, but I’m considering doing so.”
“Are you feeling OK? Seriously.”
“I am seriously, seriously fine.”
“I think maybe you’ve had enough to drink already.”
She appeared to give this some thought. “No, but there is a limit to what drinking can accomplish.”
“You never told me where you were from,” Sean said, mostly as conversational filler. He was getting bored with her. Normal in most respects. Whatever. He was only waiting to finish his beer and call it a night. His back was being tied into knots with ropes of fire.
“Ohio,” Laurie said. “The Buckeye State.”
Sean waited. “So, why did you leave?”
“It became very not grounded for me there. Like those old Road Runner cartoons where he runs off the edge of a cliff and just kind of stands there a second with a stupid look on his face and then gravity catches up with him and he falls and there’s this whistling sound, and then he lands, ka-boom. I just had to get out of there.”
“Sure,” Sean agreed. As if any of that had made sense.
“Make a new start.”
“Sure,” he said again, and this part he did understand, though the closest he was going to come to that was bankruptcy.
“I’d like it if you talked to me,” she announced. “About anything at all. You have a nice voice, Steve. All low and growly. Sometimes I think that’s the thing I love best about men, their voices.”
“I’m running a little dry on talk,” Sean said. “Like I said a while ago when I was being interesting, I really messed up my back today and I should probably go home and tend to it.”
“I have a son just a year older than yours,” she informed him.
“Yeah?” Now that he’d announced his intention of leaving, she seemed to be making more of an effort. “Where is he, he come out here with you?”
“No. He’s back in Ohio.” She looked around the room, frowning, as if expecting someone who had not yet arrived.
“So it’s really not a complicated question, whether or not you have kids.”
“I don’t know why I said that. It’s more like, he got himself into some complicated trouble.”
“That tends to come with the territory,” Sean said. “Kids.” They were all spoiled rotten these days, all of them except for his own boy, who was turning out to be the only part of his stupid life he wouldn’t change or unmake and sorry, lady, everybody had problems and so far hers weren’t doing the trick of distracting him from his own. Mostly the house and how long it was going to take to grind through the miserable jerk-off process of foreclosure and sheriff’s sale and whether his ass would be on the street at that point or whether there was anything a lawyer could do, sure, throw himself on the mercy of the courts for being a hopeless fuckup.
“This is a little different territory,” Laurie said. “Prison territory.”
If she was expecting him to be all interested and sympathetic, she figured wrong. He said, “Yeah? That’s a tough one.”
“Excuse me,” Laurie said, hoisting herself off the bar stool with a kind of careful clumsiness. “Be right back.”
That seemed a little abrupt to him, like this particular incarceration trauma made her have to pee just this instant, but what the hell. Next time he had an itch to check out the personals ads, he’d remind himself just how depressing it was to spend time with some weirdo who mostly wanted to display her weirdness to the rest of the world.
He texted Conner: U home? And got back, Yes wer r u? Sean answered, On my way. He wanted to catch up with Conner, shoot the shit with him, impress on him all over again that if he ever did a bunch of stupid drug stuff he’d end up in jail with all the rest of the losers, and his poor old dad would spend his nights in the tavern, crying into his beer about it. Home, yes, as long as he still had four walls and a roof to his name, he might as well enjoy them.
When she did reappear, she’d visibly freshened up, put a layer of powder or something over the worst of the silver crayon. Before Sean could begin his how-nice-to-meet-you exit speech, she grabbed his arm. “Oh my God.” Laurie leaned in toward him to whisper, the kind of whisper you produced in a crowded bar. “Don’t look now, but there’s a guy over there who might be trying to find me.”
“Yeah?” He took in the portion of the room in front of him, saw nobody who looked to be paying her any attention. “Where?”
“Don’t look! Are you done with your drink? Can we go? Can you just pretend we’re leaving together, you know, like a date?”
She still had a hand on his arm, pulling at it, and she looked excited or scared or both.
Sean said, “Trying to find you, what, another one of your Craigslist pals?”
“Please.” She reached up, kissed him. He was too surprised either to resist or kiss back. The sleeve of her silver jacket made stiff, crackling sounds, like the color had been sprayed on. “Just help me get outside.”
“Jesus Christ, lady.”
“I would be very, very grateful,” she murmured, her hand still on the back of his neck, her face still close to his.
“All right, hold on. Jesus.” It looked like he wasn’t going to get out the door without her. He detached her hand, prepared for movement. His back wasn’t going to quit hurting anytime soon. He stood, put on his windbreaker, and looked around the room again, nothing. He was irritated, he thought if there really was somebody who wanted her for some unknown reason, she should make the most of that. But the kiss had been an invitation, and even with a bad back, he couldn’t help thinking what might come of it.
She was walking a little ahead of him. Maybe she wanted him to watch her tight little ass, which he didn’t mind doing. She waited for Sean to open the door for her. “Where’s your car?” he asked.
“Over there, I think.”
He looked behind him at the restaurant. “I’m not seeing your stalker, if that’s what he is.”
“Will you walk me to my car?”
Sean sighed loud enough for her to hear it. Laurie led the way and again he trailed behind, thinking stupid stupid stupid, meaning himself, mostly. Head full of beer, fists jammed into his empty pockets, halos of blur around the parking lot lights, yup, one more wasted evening, and even though you wanted to believe you had an infinite supply of evenings available for wasting, you didn’t.
“Hey, your car matches your jacket,” he said, which he thought was kind of funny but the laughs weren’t coming. She stood by the driver’s side, again waiting for him to open doors. Which he did, leaning down, then standing back. “Well good night. Take care of yourself.”
“That’s him over there.” She was whispering again, tugging at Sean’s sleeve, and the next minute she’d fit herself next to him and was doing some serious grinding, and he couldn’t have said at first whether he liked it or not. Not, he was thinking, but then he felt his dick come to attention.
“Where is he?” Sean asked, putting his hands on her shoulders to slow her down a little, but she tilted her face up toward his and pulled his mouth onto hers. He tasted something that might have been perfume, making him recoil, but he pushed past the feeling, pushed his tongue past the small fence of her teeth and into the hot space inside.
When they stopped and drew apart she said, “He’s over there, don’t look, he’s just some guy who answered my ad and I was fooling around with him, online I mean, just going back and forth saying stuff, all this crazy stuff I didn’t mean, yeah, dumb. But I didn’t know if you were really going to show up so I told him I was coming and now he’s expecting me to leave with him but he’s probably not sure it’s me and anyway I like you, I like everything about you. Can’t we just go somewhere?”
“I don’t . . .” Sean began, without knowing what came next, don’t think so, don’t want to, wanted to but wished she wasn’t nuts. You’d have to be nuts to be humping in a parking lot with some guy you just met but maybe he was a little nuts too. “Where did you want to go?”
“Get in,” she told him, shaking the car keys out of her purse. “Let’s just get out of here.”
His phone buzzed. Conner. Sean put it up to his ear to answer. “Hey. I got a little hung up. Yeah, go on to bed, I won’t be real late.” He shut the phone off, relieved, he guessed, that he wouldn’t have to worry about Conner. He was covered, yes, free to follow his dick around all night, great idea. He walked behind the car to the passenger side, lowered himself with care—he was used to his truck, to climbing up—and shut the door behind him.
“Hey,” she said, smiling at him. The inside of the car was small, some little undersized Nissan. She started the engine and it came to life with a rattle.
“Hi yourself.” Sean draped an arm around her neck, tried to get some purchase on her left breast.
Laurie allowed this, waiting for him to be done with his probing and squeezing, then said, “It’s kind of hard for me to see behind me . . .” “Oh. Sure.” He took his arm away. He needed to move the car seat so he’d have more legroom. It slid a grudging few inches. The pain in his back felt like a crack in glass, a radiating starburst. “Are you OK to drive? You want me to?”
“I’m fine. I just had to clear my head, you know, get some fresh air.”
Laurie steered them out of the parking lot, down an access road and past a strip mall, darkened, closed, then onto 101 North. She checked the rearview mirror. “Good. I don’t think he’s following. Anyway, he doesn’t know where I live.” She was in the left lane but not driving all that fast. Headlights kept coming up behind them, bearing down on them with glare, then pulling around to pass them on the right. “So, Steve . . .”
“. . . can I ask you about something because I’m curious, nosy, what- ever name you want to hang on it, also cause I don’t see why we shouldn’t know each other a little better. Did you used to be married? Or maybe you are now. I shouldn’t assume.”
They were coming up on Petaluma but she hadn’t changed lanes and it looked like they were still heading north. Sean said, “You know what we should have done? Let me get my truck, so I can follow you, so you don’t have to drive me back later.” It had been stupid to leave the truck behind. You never wanted to be without an escape vehicle.
“Oh, I don’t mind driving, don’t worry about that. You know what they say about assume. It makes an ass out of you and me. Are you gonna tell me? Is this like, a sensitive subject, marriage?”
“No, I’m not married, we got divorced.” The front seat was small enough that they sat almost shoulder to shoulder, which made it hard for him to see her face unless he was obvious about it and turned around to look. “What about you?”
“Ha. I’ve been divorced almost as many times as I’ve been married.” She laughed at this, pleased with her own joke. “Don’t worry. Every other way but legal, I’m divorced. Whose fault was it, yours or hers?”
“Depends on who you ask. So where is it you live? You up in Santa Rosa?”
“No, Cleveland.” More of the laughing. Yeah, she was a scream. “I’m asking you.”
“Hers.” He was trying to keep his back braced, spare it some of the jolting. Crummy suspension. The car was so low to the ground, compared with his truck, that he had the sensation of the pavement skimming along just beneath his feet and one wrong move could make his door fly open, send him rolling under the wheels.
“Everybody blamed me when my son had his troubles. It’s always the woman’s fault, isn’t it?”
Sean thought about this, about what would be best to say. “Well a lot of people are just way too quick to judge. I guess I’d have to include myself in that. There’s definitely a case to be made for a lot of things between me and my wife, I mean my ex-wife, being my fault.” He reached for his cigarettes, decided against it.
“Like what. What would you say you did wrong?”
It was a test question, he thought, so he made a show of thinking about it, and although the real answer was Take up with her in the first Place when she always thought she was too good for me, he said, “I don’t know, I guess I took her for granted.” He still didn’t know exactly what that meant, even after getting it tossed in his face on so many occasions.
“That’s pretty tame, Steve. I can’t believe that’s the worst thing you ever did. The worst you’re capable of.”
He did turn his head to look at her then. She wasn’t smiling or any- thing close to it. He wasn’t crazy about the way she was driving either, lagging off the accelerator whenever somebody came up behind them. She said, “Did you ever hit your wife?”
“No, Jesus. What kind of question is that?”
“Push? Slap? Shove? Slam a door in her face?”
“Why would you think that? Come on.”
“Well if you did, at least you aren’t bragging about it. “
He let that one settle a moment, then he said, “You don’t have a real high opinion of men, do you?”
“Just human beings in general.”
“So I guess I shouldn’t take it personally.”
“Most people,” she said, and now Sean was able to put words to the feeling he’d had all along, that she was not really speaking to him, only carrying on a conversation with herself and he was just a shape or an obstacle within her field of vision and he should not take anything she said personally because at no point tonight had he been an actual person.
“Most people don’t want to admit it, but they’ve at least thought about doing terrible things.”
“No they don’t. I don’t. Give me a break.”
“Things you hear about on the news,” she said vaguely, peering into the trail of taillights ahead of them. “All the sick, twisted stuff.”
“Yeah, well I’m not fascinated by anything sick.”
“You sure about that?” Her face turned briefly in his direction. The dashboard lights gave the silver makeup an iridescent green cast. “This is kind of a stupid argument, you know? I can’t even remember how it started. You’re not real good at small talk, anybody ever tell you that?” He moved as far as he could toward the door, away from the unpleasant stiff touch of her weird jacket. He couldn’t remember what he’d thought was attractive about her. “You know what, I think maybe I should call it a night. I think you should take me back to the bar.”