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By Edward Hamlin

The old farm pond lay just beyond the electric gate with its invisible eye and whispering hydraulics. “Stop,” said Perry from the rear seat, “I need a moment here.”

The limo driver eased the heavy car to a halt and glanced anxiously into the rearview mirror. “We’re running late, Mr. Perry,” he said. “The expressway’s a real mess.”

“Can you just lower the window, please.” The bank of silver buttons in the armrest made no sense to Perry and had not for some time now. Without delay the foggy window began to slide down, opening the car to the evening’s formal scent. There was a restraint, an elegance about the October air that appealed to Perry very much. One could unravel the fragrances one by one as if undoing a woman’s careful braid, none overpowering the others, a certain decorum holding at all times.

"Sinking/Feeling," sculpture by James Prochnik

“Sinking / Feeling,” sculpture by James Prochnik

Eileen’s roses were gone now, deadheaded away; in their place the service had planted a hundred rust-brown mums, so odorless and static they might as well have been photographs of mums. Eileen would neither know nor care, of course. It had been two autumns since she’d been able to prune a rosebush or dig a bulb in. Getting through the day was enough challenge for her now, and even this she couldn’t manage alone. Absent the attentions of Perry and a part-time aide she’d be all but helpless. At this moment, Perry suspected, Maria would be reminding her that he was leaving on a trip, though he’d said goodbye only moments before. In an hour she’d be bathed and put to bed with a fistful of colorful pills, each chosen to play off the bad habits of another.

Dusk was beginning to accumulate in the willows on the far side of the pond. Perry squinted across the water to be sure of it: yes, there it was, the slow encroachment, the chilly influx. On the other shore a mist was starting to form, playing over the pewter water. In the course of an hour it would swell into a thick cowl, cottony and obscure, like the coming of sleep. At some point the night would steal in through its vagueness. All this he knew well, and loved for its melancholy.

Perry opened the door and got out of the limo and walked to the water’s edge. Dew dampened his canvas shoes, this too familiar and welcome. Only now did he notice a tinge of wood smoke on the air: a nostalgic, early-season fire in some neighbor’s grate, probably Goldman’s — but no, he thought, Goldman is gone, eaten alive by some sort of cancer, or was it Alzheimer’s? After the fact it hardly mattered. Perry stood in the withered bluegrass at the edge of the water and rocked lightly on his heels, testing the turf, hands plunged in his overcoat pockets. In the translucent indigo sky a noisy chevron of geese arrowed past the evening star. Shouldn’t they be heading south? It seemed to him they were heading north, though neither his sense of direction nor his grasp of avian behavior could be trusted at this moment.

“Sir,” pleaded the driver, hurrying around the car in his blockish suit. “If you’re going to make your flight.”

“Thank you, I know.” Only a few months ago he’d swum from here over to the willows, the August heat muddying the air. Lolling amid cattails like a mallard he’d thought carefully about Eileen’s condition and wondered if the time had come when he’d need to decide, for both of them, what to do. He could touch the somber mood of that afternoon easily now, the gravity of that lonely and low-hanging day, but could not remember what conclusions he’d come to. Maria had entered their lives recently — was she a product of those ruminations in the shallows?

He was surprised to see a dark-haired boy swing into view: who would bring a child on assignment?

Perry was learning to let go of details without the panic he’d once felt. It didn’t matter if he’d forgotten what killed Goldman or which direction geese flew. Maria ran the house, tended Eileen and covered for his little lapses, the soul of discretion. The kids, grown now into barely recognizable adults, expected little of him. His daughter Suzanne minded his money and called to brag about her own children, never asking him a question. Mark called on his birthday from some forward time zone. The world went on, balanced on its well-oiled gimbals, leaving Perry to savor autumn evenings like this one, surrender his watchword.

“We need to get on the road,” badgered the driver. “Now. Sir.”

Perry took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the fragrance of home. Somewhere over the Atlantic, or perhaps it was the Pacific, he’d tap into this ethereal cache, bringing up whiffs like a diver meting out precious air. With luck it would last until he touched down. He imagined that the atmosphere at the other end of his journey would be polluted, hot and fetid and malodorous, but when he tried to guess its particulars he could not. Curry? Bus fumes? Crab fritters fried in vats outside the terminal? He couldn’t be sure, but was convinced it would be unpleasant.

At this moment, in fact, standing at the soft edge of his dusky pond, he couldn’t recall his destination at all. Perry felt for the travel wallet in the inner pocket of his overcoat and fingered the boarding pass as if to read the text through his fingertips, but couldn’t make anything of it. He might have taken the card out and studied it, but this would involve locating his glasses somewhere in his pockets or shoulder bag, who knew where, and he had no wish to appear confused in front of the driver.

South, he thought.

Warm.

It was enough.

At the airport he signed the driver’s chit and handed his old Samsonite off to the burly black valet. “Woo!” said the man, “been awhile since I seen one a these babies.” Perry had traveled nearly two million miles in his career but had never yielded to the concept of a suitcase with wheels. For short trips he favored a simple canvas bag Eileen had received years ago in some store promotion; it was just large enough for a toilet kit, two boxed shirts, slacks, pajamas, the Times and a few other necessities. If one traveled in one’s suit it was perfectly adequate, so much simpler than hauling a suitcase. For longer trips he took the battered Samsonite with its molded-plastic, snub-nosed edges — Eileen called it The Missile — and had never seen a reason to replace it. It had a look of Cold War technology about it, blast-resistant and aerodynamic like the nose cone of a warhead. Clearly it would outlast them both. This was the bag he now entrusted to the man at the podium.

“Can’t check this here,” the man said in a disappointed tone.

“Why?”

“International. Got to check your bags at check-in. But I can lend you one a these.” The valet wheeled over a luggage cart and humped the Samsonite onto it with a rakish grunt.

“Nice flight,” he said.

“Same to you,” said Perry, and pushed the cart through the revolving doors, big as hydroelectric turbines. It was eight o’clock in the evening but JFK was as busy as a rush-hour subway platform. Perry hitched his shoulder bag higher and entered the fray, the cart nosing forward like the prow of a ship. The ethnic farrago that was New York was all the more stupendous here, with exhausted travelers from Karachi and Odessa and Tanzania dragging their enormous bags and ragged families through the terminal like the last desperate survivors of obliterated tribes. Perry had long noted that their clothes were often inappropriate for the weather they’d soon confront. What did they think, he wondered, that they were going to walk out into the same climate they’d left back home?

Eileen was convinced their clothes were full of lice and virulent microbes, perhaps even the odd scorpion or cockroach — who knew? There was no telling what had stowed away beneath the djellabas and saris and grimy pajamas. Consequently she’d made it her business to know the location of the executive lounges in airports around the world. There was no reason to sit among immigrants and risk catching whatever it was they had when one possessed the means to do otherwise. It might not be fair, but it was sensible, and given the opportunity those weary travelers would have done the same. In better days she’d had her nails done exquisitely in a Kuwaiti lounge, had drunk French champagne in Abu Dhabi and lounged in the Turkish Airlines pool in Istanbul. Perry found it all embarrassing and beneath her, but tolerated it because there was no profit in contradicting her. Of course it was a non-issue now. She’d barely left the house since the surprise trip to Wimbledon two years before. It seemed likely that the British Airways lounge, with its staid frumpish furniture and indigestible hors d’oeuvres, would be her last airport oasis.

Perry soon realized he was lost. He’d flown through JFK countless times across four decades, but now it seemed as foreign as any airport he’d ever wandered through. He might have been in Doha or Mumbai or Athens, flummoxed by the jabber of foreign languages and nonsensical signage. He stopped where he was, causing a woman to collide with him from behind.

“Wash where you going!” the woman snapped.

She was a wheelchair porter, Puerto Rican he thought, her hair bronzed and pasted up into a stiff meringue. Perry stepped aside to let her pass, nodding an apology she never saw. As he began walking again he realized that the wheelchair had done something to his right knee when it clipped him from behind, making it flare each time he took a step. He put a little weight on it; it was bearable, just an annoyance of the sort he’d long since grown accustomed to. Not long ago he might have spoken sharply to the woman, but he was no longer suited to the role. As long as there was no permanent damage done he’d rather just let it go.

A red-jacketed young man stood before him, well enough groomed for his age. “You look a little turned around,” he said. “May I help?”

“Actually,” said Perry, and stopped.

“This is United. Flying with us today?”

“I don’t know.” This was the wrong answer. “When you travel as much as I do — “

The man was unfazed, or trained well enough to hide it. “May I take a quick look at your boarding pass?”

Perry drew the travel wallet from his overcoat and handed it over. The man removed the passport and studied the boarding pass that Maria had tucked inside it. She was nothing if not organized.

“I thought I recognized you, Mr. Perry,” he said. “My mom and I used to watch you over dinner when I was a kid. Kind of grew up with you. I remember you in a flak jacket in Beirut, right in the middle of it, bullets flying, the whole deal. My mom had a crush on you, looking back.”

Perry had learned not to engage this particular line of conversation. As the years went on it seemed by turns embarrassing and alarming to have played such a role in the lives of perfect strangers. By way of reply he studied the meager furnishings of the check-in counter, fingering the canister of luggage tags. The airline man took his point gracefully.

“The good news is, Mr. Perry, you’re in exactly the right place. Let’s get you checked in.” With easy authority he unhitched a cordon and escorted Perry to a podium at the end of a long line of similar podiums, pushing the luggage cart before him. “Mr. Perry is traveling on 205 with us today,” he told the woman behind the computer. “Seat 2D, one bag. I’ll walk him through.”

When the check-in was done the young man took back his documents and offered to carry Perry’s shoulder bag, the Samsonite disappearing on a moving belt. “My name’s Scott, by the way, Mr. Perry. I’m going to concierge you through. It’s something we like to do for our VIP customers.”

True to his word the red-jacketed man handled everything, quickly squiring Perry through the security rigmarole, no less efficient than Maria with her singular ability to navigate bureaucracy. Perry considered getting his number so that if Maria went back to her country he might call and offer him the position. With Eileen out of commission and Perry himself letting go of details it had become clear that they needed a fixer, and would need one from now on. But now the young man was waving goodbye from the other side of the X-ray machine. Perry noted that his shoulder bag was back on his own shoulder, though he was in his stocking feet. “The Club!” the airline man called out from afar, gesturing to the left and then standing by patiently while Perry sat and pulled on his canvas shoes. No doubt his brief encounter with Russell Perry, grandee of the nightly news, would be recounted for years to come. There was nothing Perry could do about this. People made of him what they wished and it couldn’t be his concern.

For a man who’d once ridden hardened 707s into Saigon and Burma, the scale of modern air travel seemed insupportable.

As Perry shambled off he decided against visiting the airport club. Eileen would have insisted, but Eileen was home in bed, deep into her drugged sleep. While the voluptuous chairs and relative quiet held some appeal, and a scotch would not be amiss, there was always the possibility that he would doze off, or lose track of time and miss the flight, or get lost looking for his gate. Better to find the gate and park himself there.

As the myriad possibilities for disaster flitted through his mind Perry felt a wintry sadness wrap around his bones. How had it found him here, lost in a maze of humanity? To be Russell Perry now, late in this life, was to be a December house whose furnace was gradually failing, a house freezing to death from the inside. Perry sulked in his overcoat, badly in need of simple warmth.

To reach seat 2D Perry had to work past seat 2C, whose occupant was a gaunt man sporting dark sunglasses and nickel-sized bone rings in his distended earlobes. The man seemed to be napping already, fingers laced on the flat belly, his leather-clad legs extended into a formidable barrier. Perry did not want to be the one to wake him. Fortunately a flight attendant saw his dilemma and stepped over to intervene. With the delicacy of a ballerina she touched the sleeper’s shoulder and addressed him in a language Perry didn’t recognize. With an abrupt jerk the man got groggily to his feet, stepping into the aisle so his seatmate could pass. Perry nodded his thanks but the man was remonstrating with the flight attendant in their language, raking his bleached hair with a hand whose every finger was equipped with a dangerous-looking silver ring. Perry settled himself quickly. The prospect of sharing the flight with such a combustible personality was affecting his breathing: once buckled in he willed himself to take deep breaths, to calm down. If only he could manage to sleep on the plane — a skill he’d never mastered — there would be no reason to interact further.

But then the man addressed him. “Sorry, man,” he said in an accent heavy with loose consonants. “The bitch pissed me off.” He held out his hand with its crust of hardware. “Antonio.”

Perry took the hand reluctantly. It was like grasping the business end of a complicated tool. “Russell.”

“What do you do, Russell?”

“Retired,” said Perry, the old deflection. The dark glasses did not react. It occurred to Perry that the foreigner didn’t recognize him, a happy discovery. “From the news business.”

“Cool.”

“What do you do, Arturo?”

“Antonio.”

“Sorry.”

“I am a musician, Russell.” Antonio beckoned the flight attendant, miming the act of downing a drink. In response she busied herself with a pair of children in the first row who gamboled in their huge seats like children in identical sandboxes. “Puta,” said Perry’s companion, smacking the seat back in front of him. “I am a singer, Russell.”

“No,” said Perry, “I mean what do you do for a living?”

The dark glasses turned on him. “I tell you, Russell. I am a singer.” The consonants stood up briskly now. Perhaps the man was too wealthy for a career, insulted by the very notion of work. With his eyes hidden by the absurd sunglasses it was hard to know. Perry looked out the window to see a fuel truck rolling off. The sooner they were in the air, the better.

With a squeal the PA system snapped on and someone made a garbled announcement about stowing bags. The speaker then switched into the foreign language and repeated herself sotto voce, dropping into an intimate register. Down on the tarmac a trolley of bags sped toward the plane. Perry glanced over his shoulder toward the economy cabin. Passengers kept streaming in, an endless flow of humanity cradling phones, quelling babies, jostling for overhead space. How many was too many? The weight the plane had taken on was concerning.

Perry closed his eyes. The logistics of modern air travel baffled him. For a man who’d once ridden hardened 707s into Saigon and Burma, who’d strapped into Hueys chopping over Da Nang, the scale of it seemed insupportable. The aircraft themselves had kept swelling, like force-fed cattle, until they no longer seemed like aircraft at all. Yet for Perry the planes had only gotten smaller: at the height of his career they’d sent him everywhere on Gulfstreams sleek as bullets. By the time he and Eileen started traveling commercial again it had all changed forever.

At last the gravid plane began to move. As it labored down the runway Perry worried it would never reach takeoff speed. The pilot would be forced to abort, sending them hurtling into the Atlantic. Perry clutched the arms of his seat, steeling himself. But then, by a miracle, they were aloft. Through his tiny porthole the lights of Long Island unreeled below, thinning as the plane passed Montauk and headed out to sea. The red light of a buoy was swallowed by the roaring engines and they were gone, airborne by the grace of God.

A snore went up beside him, his seatmate out like a light. Slowly Perry relaxed his grip on the seat arms, feeling entitled to a drink. He’d skip the dinner and try to sleep too: it was the best way to pass the time. A few years ago he’d have used the dead hours to read, but now reading didn’t interest him. There was no novel in his bag, no fat biography, unless Maria had tucked one in.

Perry noticed a glow in the sky: the moon, gibbous and high, just the sort of undemanding companion he needed. For several calm minutes he gazed out into the burnished black, his mind a blank. But when the pretty flight attendant arrived to take drink orders the man beside him awoke noisily. After Perry ordered his scotch his seatmate snapped out something in his language and the flight attendant marked down his order without a word, moving on to the next row.

“Now,” said his neighbor when the drinks arrived, “the main course.” After rummaging in his leather jacket he retrieved a pill bottle and held it up for Perry. “The only way to travel, man. Want one?”

“No,” said Perry, abashed. The details of other people’s medical conditions were not his business.

“You’ll sleep like a baby, bro.” He pointed to the pharmacy label. “Prescription — my treat.”

“No, thank you,” said Perry, looking away. But as he slowly nursed his scotch, moonlight lapping at the sea below, he began to see it differently. Sleep was what he needed — oblivion, if possible. “Excuse me,” he said, “I think I’d like one of those pills after all. If the offer still stands.”

The sunglasses turned toward him with what Perry imagined to be satisfaction. “Way cool, man.” Two oval pills appeared on his dry palm. “One for now, one for the trip back,” said his seatmate. “See you on the other side.” With a last swallow of scotch Perry took both pills. “Shit, man,” said the singer, “you really got a sweet tooth.” Perry leaned back and waited for sleep to come, the broad seat accepting him gracefully.

When Perry awoke he found himself standing beside a glass booth. Through an opening in the thick window a dark-skinned official was tapping impatiently on the counter. “Passport,” he said, staring at Perry.

Perry discovered the travel wallet in his hand. Inside sat the passport, and inside the passport a blue form. He laid both on the counter. The official scanned the form and shoved it back. “Sign,” he said. Dutifully Perry signed his name. His head was thick with sleep or perhaps some illness, his thoughts intractable as stiffening cement. The hand clutching the pen was barely connected to the rest of him.

“Where you arrive from?” said the official.

This was a larger question than it seemed. Perry couldn’t account for how he’d arrived in his present situation. In alarm he glanced over his shoulder at the serpentine line of souls behind him. Where was he, anyway? What had he signed? Who had filled out the form and slipped it into his passport? The Samsonite lay on a cart behind him like a shell-shocked soldier on a gurney. For a fleeting instant he wondered whether he was dead, or perhaps flat on his back in a hospital somewhere, hallucinating it all. The only time he’d felt so confused was after his hip surgery, when the anesthesia weighed on him like a mountain of sand.

Sir,” said the official with acid courtesy. “Where you arrive from?”

“New York,” Perry said with a certainty he didn’t feel.

“Business or leisure?”

“Business. And some leisure,” he added prudently.

“What business? Meetings? A congress?”

“Congress? I’m in the news business.”

The official tilted his head skeptically and glanced over Perry’s shoulder.

“Retired,” Perry explained, sensing trouble. Something was packed in behind his eyes, some sort of wadding where grey matter should be. He grasped the side of the booth to steady himself.

“Are you alright, Mr. Perry?” asked the man behind the glass, not a trace of real concern in his voice.

“Alright.”

With a last skeptical look the official stamped his passport and slipped it back through the window, waving the next traveler forward.

Perry began to wander off, pushing the Samsonite into the crowd, but someone clutched his arm. Alarmed, he turned to see a woman holding his shoulder bag out to him. “Don’t forget this!” she said.

“Thanks, Maria,” said Perry, and shuffled on, his legs heavy as stone.

Just ahead lay a podium manned by two gossiping policewomen. Perry began moving toward them, thinking to ask for help, perhaps even for a doctor, but a blaring announcement stopped him in his tracks. The foreign language again: a male voice addressed the hangar-like room in a scolding tone, as if they were all guilty of some crime. Perhaps dogs would appear now, jackboots. Perry listened through the fog in his head but none of it made sense. The language sounded vaguely Spanish, but its smooth flow was jarred by harsh, Russian-issue sibilants. When the announcement ended Perry heard a more familiar voice at his side.

“You ready for this shit?” said a man in aviator sunglasses and leather pants. “You want to feel it, man? The love? Follow me.” The man took Perry’s arm and cut through a line of irritable travelers as if on official business, tacking toward a portal with a sign that read NOTHING TO DECLARE. What a relief the words were! This was the door that led to a place where no one would ask Perry to speak, where his opinion was of no interest. Perry pushed the cart harder, hastening toward it.

The door slid open as they approached, and like old friends Perry and the man walked through it to face a solid wall of humanity, much of it in the form of black-clad teenagers straining against a barrier. A dozen camera flashes detonated blindingly, the roar of voices gladiatorial. Somewhere amid the chaos a television camera pivoted like the enormous head of a dinosaur, tracking them like prey.

“It’s your twenty seconds of fame, brother,” said the man at his side, laying one hand on Perry’s luggage cart and waving with the other. The voice was familiar but Perry couldn’t place it. The man was steering him closer to the hopped-up crowd and Perry saw eyes turning toward him now. The fans were beginning to wonder who he was, trying to fit him into the pantheon of the star’s life. He saw a young man with orange-dyed hair point at him, then another. When a boom mike swung out over Perry’s head like a raptor suddenly bearing down, wheeling in from a great height to seize him, his mind filled with a panic so profound he could no longer stand still.

Perry broke away and lugged his heavy legs back toward the double doors, leaving the Samsonite to fend for itself. Just as he approached the doors they opened with a swishing sound, disgorging a family of five who stared at him as he lumbered past and made for the row of glass booths. But before he’d taken ten steps he was accosted by the two female officers at the nearby podium, each pinioning an arm as they hauled him aside.

“Maria!” cried Perry.

One of the guards produced a pair of handcuffs, but the other sought out Perry’s gaze and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You meet someone call Maria?” she asked.

Perry nodded.

“She you daughter?”

Perry shook his head. The woman frowned. “Family?”

“Yes.”

The guard sent a look to her colleague and began to escort him gently toward the double doors. “We go find Maria, okay?” she said. Perry felt tears coming and let himself be led forward, praying that Maria had remembered to come.

“Nice that they escorted you out,” said the driver beside him. “What a scene with Billy Tyro — I can’t believe you met him! He’s like Jagger here. I don’t blame you for turning tail and getting out of there. Craziness.”

Perry found himself in a car flooded with sun. It seemed to be early morning; they wheeled through traffic past a huge stadium surrounded by slums that reminded him of the West Bank, Mogadishu, Hanoi. He wondered if the driver was also to be his translator. It simplified matters at checkpoints, he’d found, and hotels. A truly bilingual driver was a real find.

He wished his head would clear. As they maneuvered through traffic it was as if they were maneuvering through a sunken battleship in fathomless water, the pressure from above gargantuan. He could barely string together a complete thought.

“Think how many photos there will be of you with Billy Tyro,” said a woman from the back seat. “You’ll be in the newspaper!”

“Jesus, no,” said Perry. “I do television.” The driver laughed nervously, drawing laughter from the back seat. In the rearview mirror the brown eyes of an attractive woman were upon him. He was surprised to see a dark-haired boy swing into view: who would bring a child on assignment?

The car fell silent for awhile. From time to time Perry checked the mirror to try to learn more about his situation. In the back seat, he saw, the boy was engrossed in some kind of video game. His mother stared out the window with a melancholy expression, but then caught his eyes in the mirror, studying his expression carefully before flashing an affectionate smile. Perry wondered if she was flirting with him. Mother and son had dusky complexions, possibly Middle Eastern — again he thought of the West Bank, but the road was too good. Beirut? Tehran? The ayatollahs believed in pavement these days.

At length the driver looked over, a shimmering seascape coming into view beyond his window. “Dad,” he said oddly, “how’s Mom? Tell me honestly. It’s hard to know from here.” His eyes went back to the road. “You know Maria and I don’t communicate well. I always think she’s glossing over things. Everything’s always fine.” When Perry didn’t respond he tried again: “You can tell us. It’s one reason we wanted you to come down. To speak more freely.” His eyes swung back toward Perry. “And frankly, we thought you could use a break from it all. I don’t know how you do it. Are you listening, Dad?”

It was really too much. “I’ll thank you not to call me that,” said Perry.

“Call you what?”

“Dad. I’m sure your actual father wouldn’t appreciate it.”

Why did people project their failures onto him? A magazine had once referred to Russell Perrys fatherly baritone, as if he’d fathered a nation. Perry looked out his window in disgust.

“How can you say that?” said the driver with a quaver in his voice. “What a thing to say.”

“Your father’s tired, Mark,” said the woman from behind. “Imagine.” She leaned forward and squeezed the driver’s shoulder, continuing in their language. Perry didn’t understand the words but he perfectly understood the meaning. Back off, she was telling him.

“Yeah,” Perry said, “back off.”

The rest of the trip passed in strained silence, the car wheeling along a lapidary coastline. Great papaya-like rocks surged up amid gleaming white buildings, their rugged faces spattered with vegetation. The sea flashed between the towers as the car skirted a wide beach that seemed to wind in and out at random, the coast a maze of bays and jetties. The city seemed familiar to Perry in the way that Hollywood’s version of the Riviera was familiar: a fantasy gold coast, playground of noble thieves — a fabrication. Only the belching buses broke the illusion.

They entered a long curve and a lagoon appeared to their left, a silver platter laid out in the heart of the city. Fleetingly Perry saw shirtless runners making their way around the perimeter, dogs tethered to their waists; a man hacked at a green coconut with his machete, two young women in tenuous sarongs looking on. The early sun grazed at the water with scant appetite. Perry’s head was slowly clearing, though he could not have named the city around him.

After a few blocks the driver veered onto a ramp that led down to a shadowy parking area under an apartment building. With a sudden lurch the journey was concluded. As Perry’s eyes adjusted, the mother and son clambered from the back seat and commandeered a tiny elevator, holding the door open for him. “Welcome back, Dad,” the driver said as he threw the handbrake, “if I can call you that.”

Perry slammed the door behind him and followed the woman into the elevator, annoyed to see his bag slung over her bare shoulder. Something in her zeal provoked him. “Mark’ll bring your bag up behind us,” she said, punching a button. “It’s tight in here.” After a noiseless climb the doors opened directly into an apartment where an aproned black woman stood hugging herself. When she saw Perry she smiled with crooked teeth.

“You remember Suelen, don’t you, Russell?” said the woman. “She remembers you.” The maid smiled her terrible smile and disappeared into the apartment, following the boy, who’d bolted the moment they arrived. “What would we do without her?” asked the woman. “Come in, come in.”

Perry at last felt the world’s hectic spin slowing down. It was time to stop moving and rest. He found a sofa with a view of the lagoon below and settled in, letting them bring him a glass of thin juice and some salty snacks, and before long he found he could no longer keep his eyes open. They’d been talking to him the whole while but it might as well have been a television nattering in another room.

“I think someone could use a little nap,” said the woman kindly.

“Dad,” said the driver, “I’m off to work. I want to hear all about your trip, but you should rest. We’ll catch up tonight.” The man squeezed Perry’s shoulder and Perry didn’t object; let him think what he liked. “If there’s anything you need, just ask Suelen or Ana, okay?” With this he collected a leather briefcase and let himself out the door.

“Suelen is a treasure,” the woman confided, pulling a chair up beside him.

Perry smiled, surprising them both. Despite his exhaustion his head was beginning to clear, the gothic fog lifting. Perhaps the presence of a woman had something to do with it. “It’s Ana, isn’t it?”

She hesitated, frowning. “Don’t you remember me, Rusty?”

This caught Perry up short; how could the woman know a nickname only family members used, and only at home? She sat watching him carefully, the way doctors watched him now. She was waiting for him to answer some question she’d asked, but his mind couldn’t get past the Rusty.

“You’re tired,” she said, smiling, the question forgotten. The maid appeared in the doorway and asked the woman something in the local language, then curtsied and retired into the hallway. “Like I said,” the woman continued, “Suelen is just a treasure. Really a good soul. We’re lucky to have her.”

“This woman we’ve got now is also quite good,” Perry replied. “Never drops a stitch. Couldn’t do without her.”

“Maria — yes. Her cousin and I were neighbors, you know.”

“Goodness, what are the odds?”

“It wasn’t exactly a coincidence, you know. I referred her to you. You wrote a letter for her visa application.”

Perry gazed down at the silver lagoon. “Maria. You’re right. That’s her name.”

Again the woman gave a puzzled look. “Rusty,” she said carefully, “do you sometimes have trouble remembering things?”

Down on the water a pair of sailboats moved in close formation. “I remember sailing with Kennedy,” Perry snapped. “How’s that?”

The woman frowned again, then smiled. “That’s pretty amazing,” she said, and took his hand.

Startled, Perry drew back, but her soft hand would not let go of his. Her eyes were clear and deep. Perry felt his entire body relax as she gazed at him. They sat for a while without speaking, her placid aura settling over him like fine weather. There had been moments like this in the early days with Eileen, when they’d take the train up to the Cloisters to visit the unicorn tapestries and then lie back on the bluff over the Hudson without saying a word, the afternoon passing over them softly, their shared silence glorious. The woman’s silence was like this. When the maid brought coffee she smiled and nodded toward it, but Perry only shook his head. He’d never suspected a destination like this was on his itinerary.

At some point the boy appeared and sat down on the sofa next to Perry, a shiny black tablet in his hands. “Look, Grandpa,” he said, “it’s Grandma.”

“Diego,” said the woman, “your grandfather’s not in the mood.”

“Russ! Goddamn it!” Eileen’s panicked voice burst into the peaceful room, childlike but for the coarse language. Perry looked down and saw that the boy was holding a video screen entirely filled with his wife’s face. It made no sense — was this television? His head blurred again as if he’d been struck from behind. For years Eileen had watched him on the nightly news, eating with the kids as he reported from Saigon or Port-au-Prince or the sound stage in Manhattan, but now she was the one on television, badly off script.

“Eileen?” he asked the screen, feeling foolish.

“Look at the camera there, Mrs. Perry,” said Maria’s voice through the little television.

“Maria!” said Perry with relief. “Are you there?”

Now Maria’s face swung into view, and behind her the familiar environs of Perry’s living room. “Hey, Mr. Perry,” said Maria. “How was the trip? I’ll bet you’re glad just to be there.”

His hostess leaned across and waved at the screen. “Hi, Maria,” she said.

The women talked for a few moments in their language, their voices rising. Finally Maria said, “Is he giving you any trouble, Ana?”

Ana — he’d been listening for the name, having already forgotten it, and here it was.

“Not a bit,” said Ana, smiling at him.

Ana, he repeated to himself. Ana.

“But it’s hard to make a big trip alone, isn’t it, Rusty?” Ana looked at him levelly.

“I tried to warn — ” Maria said, but a crash from off screen interrupted her.

“Russ!” Eileen’s voice wailed. “Are you there?” Now the camera jerked back to her contorted face. Perry could see she wasn’t well. Her eyes roved to and fro frantically, like those of a drowning woman searching for debris to cling to.

“Right here, hon.”

“I thought you retired!”

“Still on television, aren’t I?” Perry glanced over at Ana with a look that said, Poor thing, shes confused. “What have you been doing since I left?”

“Hang up!” cried Eileen. “Maria, shut this goddamned thing off!”

Maria came back into view. “I think someone needs her breakfast. But this was a great idea, Diego. Let’s try again when everyone’s feeling better, okay?”

The screen went blank with the sound of a cartoon raindrop striking a pond. Perry was aware of Ana watching him. “At least she seems to remember you,” she said gently.

“Most of the time.”

“Sometimes she doesn’t?”

Perry began to answer but found his throat clenched. His eyes were welling with tears.

“Diego,” Ana said to the boy, then finished the thought in their language.

When the boy sulked off Perry felt his energy drain away suddenly, as if his aorta had been cleanly opened. “I need to lie down,” he told Ana urgently, and followed her into a sunny guestroom where she turned down the bed and knelt to slip his shoes off. Ana, he reminded himself, Ana. The Samsonite stood watch against the far wall like a humorless sentry. “Pajamas,” said Perry, gesturing toward it. But instead of going to the suitcase Ana opened the doors of the wardrobe, where the maid had arranged all his clothes. There hung his striped pajamas, pressed and inviting.

“I’ll leave you to rest,” said Ana, laying a cool palm on his cheek. “At noon I take Diego to volleyball, but I won’t be gone long. Just call if you need anything, Rusty.” With a kiss to his cheek she left him, easing the door closed behind her.

A few moments later, as Perry was dropping off, he rolled onto his side and was startled to see Christ standing on a distant rock, arms spread wide. Startled, Perry shut his eyes tightly, then opened them again. With a more careful look he saw that it was only a statue of Christ, perched atop a peak and gazing across the vast city. The Son’s back was half-turned; Perry was not his concern.

“Go to hell!” said Perry, and turned his back on the trickster with a snort.

He awoke with hot sun on the back of his neck and the squall of a child in his ear. “Christ almighty!” he said, and started to get up, only to realize that he was already standing. Not only standing, in fact, but standing outdoors at the edge of a magnificently shimmering pond. For an instant he thought he was in Central Park, perhaps the north shore of the Lake, but the curve of the shoreline was all wrong. Puzzled, Perry scanned the horizon looking for clues, then realized where he was.

“Jesus,” he said aloud, as if to a careless taxi driver, “where the hell did you think you were going?”

He was almost sure that the body of water before him was the pond next to his own home, but it had taken time for the fact to register. Though the silvery expanse seemed much larger than he remembered, he recognized some of the waterfowl, and the way the sun broke aslant when a fish nipped at the air. Why hadn’t he known it instantly, instinctively? At such moments Perry imagined his own faltering soul trapped inside his ribcage, wrongly imprisoned, its hands gripping two white ribs like iron bars. And now, abruptly, his eyes were filling with tears again — another abasement, another mystery. His body was no friend to him: this much he knew. “Go fuck yourself,” he told it, wiping the tears away with the palm of his hand. Really there was no escape, no way out of this prison but flat on one’s back. He saw it clearly. It was criminal.

With all the violence he could muster, Russell Perry kicked a beer bottle into a fast spin, realizing only when he made contact that he wasn’t wearing any shoes. A spike of pain shot to the base of his skull and stopped there suddenly as if slamming into a concrete wall. Perry gazed down and saw a smear of red on the sidewalk and a gelatinous ooze spreading from his big toe, but it might as well have been another man’s foot. He refused to claim it as his own. Let the body suffer; it had betrayed him. It was as dead to him as his father’s handshake, his mother’s kiss.

Perry scanned the pond, the sun pressing down with a heavy hand. It had been an irrigation overflow back when Westchester County was still countryside, before the Tappan Zee opened a direct vein to the city. He and Eileen had been part of the resulting influx, the occupying army from the south: they’d closed on the old farmhouse and its forty acres on the same day Jack Kennedy took office, spending more than they should have, smitten with the place. He’d long recall that first hard winter, the frigid weekends spent getting the house in shape — the two of them slogging up from the city through blinding snow only to find that a burst pipe had turned the kitchen into an ice rink, the defiant rats at large in the smutty cellar, the rusted woodstove slowly filling the bedroom with smoke as they made love under a mountain of blankets. All this he remembered perfectly despite present lapses, the deep past preserved archivally somewhere within him.

For nearly half a century now the place had been home, renovated and upgraded and made comfortable through the years, its rooms filling with souvenirs of his professional travels. On the coffee table sat a rough yellow brick from Robben Island that Mandela had given him; in an alcove hung a samurai sword with a famous 17th-century blade, gift of a cousin of Hirohito. Gradually, too, the grounds had been converted from pastureland to lawn — Russell could still picture the kids running across it, tearing it up to Eileen’s constant exasperation and his hidden delight — and then allowed to lapse back into grassy fields, following the style of the times. Only the pond had remained unchanged, the landscape morphing around it, making way for it. And so Russell knew the pond as well as he knew Eileen’s face, in all its hours and weathers.

Yet now, oddly, its banks were aswarm with foreigners. Had someone left the gate open? A young mother walked past with a tetchy child on her shoulder, giving him a wide berth. Two girls jogged by laughing, one of them pointing openly at him, a bit of some foreign language gusting by as they passed. A moment later a muscular black man with a Rottweiler on a short lead approached along the path, speaking to the dog firmly — Perry knew somehow that he was speaking of him — and as they passed Perry the animal lunged forward with a raw growl that turned to a yelp when its owner jerked the choke collar. The man walked on as if nothing had gone awry, blotting his shaved head with a striped blue towel slung across his sculpted shoulders.

In a daze Perry limped toward the water, kicking white birds away as he went, the sun tracking him from above. The heat had put him in mind of a swim. It was just what he needed: to ply across the shining surface with a slow backstroke and nestle under the willow fronds, his mind blessedly empty as frogs and fish went about their business among the cattails. How many summers had he made his way across the pond, leaving Eileen in the house to talk endlessly on the phone? He’d dreamed of such peaceful moments in beds all over the world, from Beirut to Paris to Johannesburg, the pull of his pond only strengthening the farther he traveled from it. And now here he was, the familiar grass between his toes.

At the edge of the water Perry unbuttoned his pajama top and flung it to the ground. Stepping down from the bank he felt the coolness close over his feet like careful hands. Perry waded out until the water was knee deep, the smooth stones of home beneath him. He hadn’t felt so well in ages. A complete immersion was called for. Turning his face up into the keen sun, he untied the drawstring of his pajama bottoms and let them sink below the waterline, glad to be rid of them. One of the prerogatives of wealth was the freedom of undress: with enough acreage the world’s proprieties fell away. It was good to feel the sun on his back and the cool water on his bare legs.

As the water reached his thighs Perry felt the stones under his feet give way to the sucking mud he loved. In summer, as now, one sometimes discovered crawdads with one’s toes; afraid to step on them, Perry’s time-tested practice was to drag his feet through the bottom mud like tiny dredges, not lifting them at all, and this he did now. The nap had refreshed him, and the high, lucid sun: he felt very well indeed. In the distance a crew sculled by, knees tucked to their chests, arms sweeping back and forth like synchronized pistons. They didn’t have his permission to use the pond, but Perry granted it now, silently, at peace with the world.

“Rusty!” he heard someone call from behind. “What are you doing out there?”

It was an old challenge. For years Eileen would stand on the bank and beckon him in, worried about slick rocks, fishhooks, even the trout brushing his legs, as if he were venturing into dangerous seas. It was only her love talking, he’d tell himself, her concern for a husband whose work often took him into harm’s way. For a time in the Nineties, when his frequent trips to Sarajevo made her nerves unravel, the pleas had taken on a desperate edge, his normally affectionate wife — his best friend of thirty years standing, his lover and life mate — shunning him when he returned to shore. The shunning, he knew, was only her fear expressed in another way. The idea of any harm coming to Russell Perry in his own pond, after he’d soldiered through hot zones from Vietnam to Afghanistan, was more than she could bear. And so he’d turn back, bidding his quiet waters adieu and slogging through the mud under her frantic gaze, dreading the prospect of a long evening colored by her anxiety. Only in bed would she relent, nestling against his back, sometimes taking him in her soft hand, her shaken heart open to a sweet consummation.

“Rusty!” the voice called again from behind, closer this time and more urgent. “Russell! Stay right there. The water’s polluted. It’s not safe to swim in, honey.”

Now other voices came, but only her words made sense to him. From the corner of his eye he saw someone in a bright green shirt wading toward him laboriously. Out over the water a long-necked bird of pure white swooped past, cruising low over the mirrored surface in a pendular swing and climbing back gracefully toward the heavens, its momentum carrying it up and up.

When Perry turned toward shore he saw Eileen standing knee-deep in the water, holding a blue-striped towel toward him with a supplicating look. She loved him: he saw it plainly. It was only this, and always had been. Behind her on the shore stood the shirtless black man with the Rottweiler, the dog idling at his side, and behind this Moorish guard stood a dozen others, courtiers awaiting their returning liege. Perry straightened on reflex, rising to the role, fifty years of live television having schooled him in what was expected of a conquering hero. With a sort of royal wave he acknowledged the crowd from afar, knowing that each of them, later, would believe he’d waved to her or him alone.

But the one who mattered was Eileen. It was only as Perry began walking back that he realized how much his wife had changed. The woman waiting for him across the water was not the bitter Eileen of his late middle age but a far younger one, the Eileen who’d charmed Jack and Jackie Kennedy over lunch on their Hyannis Port patio and then made love hungrily to her husband in the guest cottage, the Eileen who’d nursed two children through rubella while he sat with Chou En-Lai in a gilded room on the other side of the world, the Eileen who’d be waiting at the gate after every endless flight home, her perfume seducing him, despite his utter exhaustion, all the way back to Westchester. This was the Eileen who stood waiting for him now, framed in sun like a medieval icon, the striped towel in her hands a princely mantle. “Rusty,” she said quietly as she draped his shoulders and kissed his cheek, “you worried me out there. Please don’t wander off like that again.”

Perry kissed her on the lips for the first time in as long as he could remember, pulling her close when she tried to break away, the tawny feminine bundle in his arms a thing of exquisite beauty to him.

“I won’t,” he promised, “I’ll never leave you again.” And taking her hand he led her toward the grassy bank, the sound of applause greeting his arrival as if he’d somehow wrought peace from a decade of war.

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About Edward Hamlin

Edward Hamlin’s Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories was selected by Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell as winner of the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Award and went on to win the Colorado Book Award. Over the past few years Edward’s stories have won the Nelligan Prize, the NCW Short Story Prize and a Top of the Mountain Novel Prize, and have been finalists or runner s-up for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Narrative Story Prize, the Bridport Prize, Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize, Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the Nelson Algren Award, the Mary C. Mohr Editors’ Prize, the David Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize, the Press 53 Fiction Award and other competitions. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Missouri Review, American Fiction, Chariton Review, Printers Row Journal, Tiferet, InDigest, Cobalt, fixional.co and elsewhere. A New York native, Edward Hamlin spent his formative years in Chicago and now lives in Colorado.

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