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Going nowhere fast

'Wonders of the Invisible World'
by David Gates

January 26, 2000
Web posted at: 3:24 p.m. EST (2024 GMT)

(CNN) -- David Gates' characters know their Hopper, Huysmans and Haggard, their Beckett, Bartoli and Billie Holiday, more confidently than they know their families, friends and lovers. Yet they're terrifyingly self-aware, and refuse to go gently -- even when they're going nowhere fast. "Wonders of the Invisible World" was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award.


This text contains profanity that may be offensive to some readers.


From "A Wronged Husband"

Half awake, pawing at the night table for The Book of Great Conversations, I knock the bottle onto the floor. The sound hangs there: a ringing part, a shattering part, a splashing part. I smell the gin. Fine. It can stay there until I feel like getting up and dealing with it. Nobody here to be scandalized, nobody to be protected. A mouse, I suppose, might scamper across and cut its dainty foot, but that's the mouse's lookout, no? I remember when we first moved in here, we felt sorry for them, darting along the countertop to cower, bright-eyed, beside the toaster. So tiny, so dear: couldn't we all just live? It took a month for you to agree that something had to be done. But no D-Con. So, like what? I said. A resettlement program? "Well, couldn't we?" you said. "Couldn't we try?" And finally I went out and bought the Hav-a-Heart trap. Humane, enlightened. That was only last fall. Less than a year ago. As I remember it, we were all right then.

Kid noise through the open window. Sunday morning, quarter to eleven, already hot. I lift the sheet and shake it out to make it feel cool as it floats back down to rest on my legs. The coolness doesn't last. I prop both pillows (yours and mine) together against the headboard, sit up, put on my prescription sunglasses and turn to the Great Conversation in which Shaw loses his temper when Chesterton calls him a Puritan. Shaw says Chesterton has no real self, no firm place to stand, and Chesterton calls Shaw a Puritan for thinking that was necessary. Trying to understand these ideas is waking me up. I put the book back on the night table--carefully, though now there's no need--get out of bed, step around the glass (though I can't wholly avoid the gin puddle), go to the window and tug the shade to make it go up. Down in the street firemen have put a sprinkler cap on the hydrant--otherwise the Dominican kids just open it up and let it gush--and pencil-thick streams of water come arching out. A little boy stands at the edge of the widening pool, undecided.

But hang on: didn't I park the car in that first space to the right of the hydrant? What's there now is a rusted-out station wagon, cloudy plastic duct-taped over where the passenger window used to be. So now I know: they tow after a week of tickets. Well, fine, more power to 'em. Unless of course somebody stole the thing. In which case, also fine. But isn't it weird. You were always the one who said it was insane to keep a car in New York. I was always the one who said I wanted the feeling I could get out.

And your suddenly having to go to D.C. (yes, well, supposedly) provided a blame-free opportunity. Drive up to New Hampshire, get away from the heat and noise, spend some time with my brother. We hung out at the house mostly--Joey was still depressed about throwing his marriage away--though one afternoon we did get over into Vermont, to a used-book store run by a lady with cats. Joey beat her down on the price of some old compendium of myths he wanted for the engravings; to atone, I picked The Book of Great Conversations off the twenty-five-cent table and told her it came from the dollar table.

He called yesterday, speaking of Joey, to say he was doing a lot better. In case I'd been worried. I said I was doing a lot worse: that you had gone to live in Boston, that I hadn't left the apartment for a week, hadn't called work, didn't know if I had a job anymore and, even if I did, couldn't face going back and having to see Kate every day. I said I couldn't sleep because of the car alarms and sirens. Kate, he said: refresh me. I refreshed him. Hm, he said. But the Kate thing was already over with, I said. Discussed. Worked through. Resolved. Hm, he said. Well, he said, as far as the job, they were probably just assuming I was taking two weeks instead of the one; if they were seriously upset, they would've called, no? He said he was sorry about your leaving, but guessed he'd seen it coming when we'd been up there at Christmas. What do you mean? I said. Why do you say that? Well, for one thing, he said, you never touched each other. He said, speaking as somebody who'd been through the same thing, he knew I was going to come out of this stronger. Said at least in my case there were no children. Said maybe I could start seeing this Kate again. Joey. He runs off to the Outer Banks for a mad two-week interlude with his old used-to-be, she ends up going back to her husband (many tears), he comes home and Meg and the children are gone. And now he discovers there are no great new women in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

The night I arrived, in fact, he tried to talk me into getting back in the car and driving down to Boston to pick up college girls. Just as big as real women, he said, but stupider.

"Joey," I said. "I just drove five hours."

"So I'll drive and you can sleep on the way down. Listen, I got a teensy thing of coke left. And we can absolutely get more once we're in Boston. Fuck, let's do some coke, you want to?"

But as of yesterday, he'd gotten the north side of the house painted, which badly needed it, he'd started cutting wood for the following winter--he likes it to dry for a year and a half--and he'd patched the leak in the woodshed with roofing tar. He'd probably just needed some physical exercise. Said he'd begun a new series of silkscreens, which were absolutely going to be the best things since those ducks he was doing a couple of years ago. They're going to be--whatever the plural is of phoenix. But getting back to my thing: he'd always said that Gordon Conway was scum, and he was glad at least that now everybody would see it. Said as it turned out he guessed it was a damn good thing I'd talked him out of driving down to Boston that night. He'd planned to hit Gordon up, since Gordon generally kept enough coke around to sell, and it would've been an absolute mess if we'd knocked on the door and so on. Said he thought you might come back once the dust had a chance to settle. If that was what we both wanted. Said it seemed to him that despite everything there'd been a lot of love there.

Copyrightę 1999 by David Gates.

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