Some Other, Better Otto

Deborah Eisenberg

I don’t know why I committed us to any of those things,” Otto said. “I’d much prefer to be working or reading, and you’ll want all the time you can get this week to practice.”

“It's fine with me,” William said. “I always like to see Sharon. And we'll survive the evening with your — ”

Otto winced.

“Well, we will,” William said. “And don't you want to see Naomi and Margaret and the baby as soon as they get back?”

“Everyone always says, ‘don't you want to see the baby, don't you want to see the baby,’ but if I did want to see a fat, bald, confused person, obviously I’d have only to look in the mirror.”

“I was reading a remarkable article in the paper this morning about holiday depression,” William said. “Should I clip it for you? The statistics were amazing.”

“The statistics can not have been amazing, the article can not have been remarkable, and I am not ‘depressed.’ I just happen to be bored sick by these inane — Waving our little antennae, joining our little paws to indicate — Oh, what is the point? Why did I agree to any of this?”

“Well,” William said. “I mean, this is what we do.”

Hmm. Well, true. And the further truth was, Otto saw, that he himself wanted, in some way, to see Sharon; he himself wanted, in some way, to see Naomi and Margaret and the baby as soon as possible. And it was even he himself who had agreed to join his family for Thanksgiving. It would be straining some concept — possibly the concept of “wanted,” possibly the concept of “self” — to say that he himself had wanted to join them, and yet there clearly must have been an implicit alternative to joining them that was even less desirable, or he would not, after all, have agreed to it.

It had taken him — how long? — years and years to establish a viable, if not pristine, degree of estrangement from his family. Which was no doubt why, he once explained to William, he had tended, over the decades, to be so irascible and easily exhausted. The sustained effort, the subliminal concentration that was required to detach the stubborn prehensile hold was enough to wear a person right out and keep him from ever getting down to anything of real substance.

Weddings had lapsed entirely, birthdays were a phone call at the most, and at Christmas, Otto and William sent lavish gifts of out-of-season fruits, in the wake of which would arrive recriminatory little thank you notes. From mid-December to mid-January they would absent themselves, not merely from the perilous vicinity of Otto's family, but from the entire country, to frolic in blue water under sunny skies.

When his mother died, Otto experienced an exhilarating melancholy; most of the painful encounters and obligations would now be a thing of the past. Life, with its humorous theatricality, had bestowed and revoked with one gesture, and there he abruptly was, in the position he felt he’d been born for: he was alone in the world.

Or alone in the world, anyway, with William. Marching ahead of his sisters and brother, Corinne, Martin, and Sharon, Otto was in the front ranks now, death’s cannon fodder and so on; he had become old overnight, and free.

Old and free! Old and free….

Still, he made himself available to provide legal advice or to arrange a summer internship for some child or nephew. He saw Sharon from time to time. From time to time there were calls: “Of course you’re too busy, but … ” “Of course you’re not interested, but … ” was how they began. This was the one thing Corinne and her husband and Martin and whichever wife were always all in accord about — that Otto seemed to feel he was too good for the rest of them, despite the obvious indications to the contrary.

Who was too good for whom? It often came down to a show of force. When Corinne had called a week or so earlier about Thanksgiving, Otto, addled by alarm, said, “We're having people ourselves, I'm afraid.”

Corinne's silence was like a mirror, flashing his tiny, harmless lie back to him in huge magnification, all covered with sticky hairs and microbes.

“Well, I'll see what I can do,” he said.

“Please try,” Corrine said. The phrase had the unassailable authority of a road sign appearing suddenly around the bend: Falling Rock. “Otto, the children are growing up.”

“Children! What children? Your children grew up years ago, Corinne. Your children are old now, like us.”

“I meant, of course, Martin’s. The new ones. Martin and Laurie’s. And there’s Portia.”

Portia? Oh, yes. The little girl. The sole, thank heavens, issue of Martin’s marriage to that crazy Viola.

“I'll see what I can do,” Otto said again, this time less cravenly.

It was Corinne's own fault. A person of finer sensibilities would have written a note or used e-mail — or would face-savingly have left a message at his office, giving him time to prepare some well-crafted deterrent rather than whatever makeshift explosive he would obviously be forced to lob back at her under direct attack.

“Wesley and I are having it in the city this year," Corinne was saying. “No need to come all the way out to the nasty country. A few hours and it will all be over with. Seriously, Otto, you're an integral element. We're keeping it simple this year.”

“‘This year’? Corinne, there have been no other years. You do not observe Thanksgiving.”

“In fact, Otto, we do. And we all used to.”


“All of us.”

“Never. When? Can you imagine Mother being thankful for anything?”

“We always celebrated Thanksgiving when Father was alive.”

“I remember no such thing.”

“I do. I remember, and so does Martin.”

“Martin was four when Father died!”

“Well, you were little, too.”

“I was twice Martin’s age.”

“Oh, Otto—I just feel sad, sometimes, to tell you the truth, don’t you? It's all going so fast! I'd like to see everyone in the same room once a century or so. I want to see everybody well and happy. I mean you and Martin and Sharon were my brothers and sister. What was that all about? Don't you remember? Playing together all the time?”

“I just remember Martin throwing up all the time.”

“You’ll be nice to him, won't you, Otto? He's still very sensitive. He won't want to talk about the lawsuit.”

“Have you spoken to Sharon?”

“Well, that’s something I wanted to talk to you about, actually. I’m afraid I might have offended her. I stressed the fact that it was only to be us this year. No aunts or uncles, no cousins, no friends. Just us. And husbands or wives. Husband. And wife. Or whatever. And children, naturally, but she became very hostile.”

And sitting there, looking at one another silently, it became apparent that what each was facing was his future.

“Assuming William to be ‘whatever,’” Otto said, “why shouldn’t Sharon bring a friend if she wants to?”

“William is family. And surely you remember when she brought that person to Christmas! The person with the feet? I wish you’d go by and talk to her in the next few days. She seems to listen to you.”

Otto fished up a magazine from the floor — one of the popular science magazines William always left lying around — and idly opened it.

“Wesley and I reach out to her,” Corinne was saying, “And so does Martin, but she doesn’t respond. I know it can be hard for her to be with people, but we're not people — we're family.”

“I'm sure she understands that, Corinne.”

“I hope you do, too, Otto.”

How clearly he could see, through the phone line, this little sister of his — in her fifties now — the six-year-old's expression of aggrieved anxiety long etched decisively on her face.

“In any case,” she said, “I've called.”

AND YET THERE WAS SOMETHING to what Corinne had said; they had been one another's environs as children. The distance between them had been as great, in any important way, as it was now, but there had been no other beings close by, no other beings through whom they could probe or illumine the mystifying chasms and absences and yearnings within themselves. They had been born into the arid clutter of one another’s behavior, good and bad, their measles, skinned knees, report cards….

A barren landscape dotted with clutter. Perhaps the life of the last dinosaurs as they ranged, puzzled and sorrowful, across the comet-singed planet, was similar to childhood. It hadn't been a pleasant time, surely, and yet one did have an impulse to acknowledge one’s antecedents, now and again. Hello, that was us, it still is, good-bye.

“I don’t know,” William said. “It doesn’t seem fair to put any pressure on Sharon.”

“Heaven forfend. But I did promise Corinne I’d speak with Sharon. And, after all, I haven’t actually seen her for some time.”

“We could just go have a plain old visit, though. I don’t know. Urging her to go to Corinne’s — I’m not really comfortable with that.”

“Oof, William, phrase, please, jargon.”

“Why is that jargon?”

“Why? How should I know why? Because it is. You can say, ‘I’m uncomfortable about that,’ or ‘That makes me uncomfortable.’ But ‘I’m uncomfortable with that’ is simply jargon.” He picked up a book sitting next to him on the table and opened it. Relativity for Dummies. “Good heavens,” he said, snapping the book shut, “obviously Martin doesn't want to talk about the lawsuit. Why bother to mention that to me? Does she think I’m going to ask Martin whether it’s true that he’s been misrepresenting the value of his client’s stock? Am I likely to talk about it? I’m perfectly happy to read about it in the Times every day, like everyone else.”

“You know,” William said, “we could go away early this year. We could just pick up and leave on Wednesday, if you’d like.”

“I would not like. I would like you to play in your concert, as always.”

William took the book from Otto and held Otto’s hand between his own. “They’re not really so bad, you know, your family,” he said.

Sometimes William’s consolations were oddly like provocations. “Easy for you to say,” Otto said.

“Not that easy.”

“I’m sorry,” Otto said. “I know.”

Just like William to suggest going away early for Otto’s sake, when he looked forward so much to his concert! The little orchestra played publicly only once a year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Otto endured the grating preparatory practicing, not exactly with equanimity, it had to be admitted, but with relative forbearance, just for the pleasure of seeing William's radiant face on the occasion. William in his suit, William fussing over the programs, William busily arranging tickets for friends. Otto’s sunny, his patient, his deeply good William. Toward the end of every year, when the city lights glimmered through the fuzzy winter dark, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, William with his glowing violin, urging the good-natured, timid audience into passionate explorations of the unseen world. And every year now, from the audience, Otto felt William’s impress stamped on the planet, more legible and valuable by one year; all the more legible and valuable for the one year's diminution in William's beauty.

How spectacular he had been the first time Otto brought him to a family event, that gladiatorial Christmas thirty-odd years earlier. How had Otto ever marshaled the nerve to do it?

Oh, one could say till one was blue in the face that Christmas was a day like any other, what difference would it make if he and William were to spend that particular day apart, and so on. And yet.

Yes, the occasion forced the issue, didn't it. Either he and William would both attend, or Otto would attend alone, or they would not attend together. But whatever it was that one decided to do, it would be a declaration — to the family, and to the other. And, the fact was, to oneself.

Steeled by new love, in giddy defiance, Otto had arrived at the house with William, to all intents and purposes, on his arm.

A tidal wave of nervous prurience had practically blown the door out from inside the instant he and William ascended the front step. And all evening aunts, uncles, cousins, mother, and siblings had stared at William beadily, as if a little bunny had loped out into a clearing in front of them.

William's beauty, and the fact that he was scarcely twenty, had embarrassed Otto on other occasions, but never so searingly. “How intelligent he is!” Otto's relatives kept whispering to one another loudly, meaning, apparently, that it was a marvel he could speak. Unlike, the further implication was, the men they’d evidently been imagining all these years.

Otto had brought someone to a family event only once before — also on a Christmas, with everyone in attendance: Diandra Fetlin, a feverishly brilliant colleague, far less beautiful than William. During the turkey, she thumped Otto on the arm whenever he made a good point in the argument he was having with Wesley, and continued to eat with solemn assiduity. Then, while the others applied themselves to dessert, a stuccolike fantasy requiring vigilance, Diandra had delivered an explication of one of the firm’s recent cases that was worth three semesters of law school. No one commented on her intelligence. And no one had been in the least deceived by Otto's tepid display of interest in her.

“So,” Corinne had said in a loud and artificially genial tone as if she were speaking to an armed high-school student, “where did you and William meet, Otto?”

The table fell silent; Otto looked out at the wolfish ring of faces. “On Third Avenue,” he said distinctly, and returned to his meal.

Sorry,” he said, as he and William climbed into the car afterward. “Sorry to have embarrassed you. Sorry to have shocked them. Sorry, sorry, sorry. But what was I supposed to say? All that interest. The solicitude. The truth is, they’ve never sanctioned my way of life. Or, alternately, they've always sanctioned it. Oh, what on earth good is it to have a word that means only itself and its opposite!”

Driving back to the city, through the assaultively scenic and demographically uniform little towns, they were silent. William had witnessed; his power over Otto had been substantially increased by the preceding several hours, and yet he was exhibiting no signs of triumph. On the contrary, his habitual chipper mood was — where? Simply eclipsed. Otto glanced at him; no glance was returned.

Back in the apartment, they sat for a while in the dark. Tears stung Otto’s eyes and nose. He would miss William terribly. “It was a mistake,” he said.

William gestured absently. “Well, we had to do it sooner or later.”

We? We did? It was as if snow had begun to fall in the apartment — a gentle, chiming, twinkling snow. And sitting there, looking at one another silently, it became apparent that what each was facing was his future.

Marvelous to watch William
out in the garden, now with the late chrysanthemums. It was a flower Otto had never liked until William instructed him to look again. Well, all right, so it wasn’t a merry flower. But flowers could comfortably embrace a range of qualities, it seemed. And now, how Otto loved the imperial colors, the tensely arched blossoms, the cleansing scent that seemed dipped up from the pure well of winter, nature’s ceremony of end and beginning.

The flat little disk of autumn sun was retreating, high up over the neighbors’ buildings. As Otto gazed out the window, William straightened, shaded his eyes, waved, and bent back to work. Late in the year, William in the garden….

Strange, you really couldn't tell, half the time, whether someone was knowledgeable or insane.

Otto bought the brownstone when he and William had decided to truly move in together. Over twenty-five years ago, that was. The place was in disrepair and cost comparatively little at the time. While Otto hacked his way through the barbed thickets of intellectual property rights issues that had begun to spring up everywhere, struggling to disentangle tiny shoots of weak, drab good from vibrant, hardy evil, William worked in the garden. He worked on the house as well and to earn as he insisted on doing, a modest living of his own, he proofread for a small company that published books about music. Eventually they rented out the top story of the brownstone, for a purely nominal sum, to Naomi, whom they’d met around the neighborhood and liked. It was nice to come home late and see her light on, to run into her on the stairs.

She’d been just a girl when she’d moved in, really, nodding and smiling and ducking her head when she encountered them at the door or on the way up with intractable brown paper bags, bulging as if they were full of cats but tufted with peculiar groceries — vegetables sprouting globular appendages and sloshing cartons of liquids made from grain. Then, farther along in the distant past, Margaret had appeared.

Where there had been one in the market, at the corner bar, on the stairs, now there were two. Naomi, short and lively, given to boots and charming cowgirl skirts; tall, arrestingly bony Margaret with arched eyebrows and bright red hair. Now there were lines around Naomi’s eyes; she had widened and settled downward. One rarely recalled Margaret’s early, sylvan loveliness.

So long ago! Though it felt that way only at moments, when Otto passed by a mirror unprepared, or when he bothered to register the probable ages (in comparison with his own) of people whom — so recently! — he would have taken for contemporaries, or when he caught a glimpse of a middle-aged person coming toward him on the street who turned into William. Or sometimes when he thought of Sharon.

And right this moment, Naomi and Margaret were on their way back from China with their baby. The adoption went through! Naomi’s recent, ecstatic e-mail had announced. Adoption. Had the girls upstairs failed to notice that they had slid into their late forties?

Sharon's apartment looked, as always, as if it had been sealed up in some innocent period of the past against approaching catastrophes. There were several blond wood chairs and a sofa, all slipcovered in a nubby, unexceptionable fabric that suggested nuns’ sleepwear, and a plastic hassock. The simple, undemanding shapes of the furnishings portrayed the humility of daily life — or at least, Otto thought, of Sharon's daily life. The Formica counter was blankly unstained, and in the cupboards there was a set of heavy, functional white dishes.

It was just possible, if you craned, and scrunched yourself properly, to glimpse through the window a corner of Sharon's beloved planetarium, where she spent many of her waking hours; the light that made its way to the window around the encircling buildings was pale and tender, an elegy from a distant sun. Sharon herself sometimes seemed to Otto like an apparition from the past. As the rest of them aged, her small frame still looked like a young girl’s; her hair remained an infantine flaxen. To hold it back she wore bright plastic barrettes.

A large computer, a gift from Otto, sat in the living room, its screen permanently alive. Charts of the constellations were pinned to one of the bedroom walls, and on the facing wall were topographical maps. Peeking into the room, one felt as if one were traveling with Sharon in some zone between earth and sky; yes, down there, so far away — that was our planet.

Why did he need so many things in his life, Otto wondered; and why did all these things have to be so special? Special, beautiful plates; special, beautiful furniture; special, beautiful everything. And all that specialness, it occurred to him, only to ensure that no one — especially himself — could possibly underestimate his worth. Yet it actually served only to illustrate how corroded he was, how threadbare his native resources, how impoverished his discourse with everything that lived and was human.

Sharon filled a tea kettle with water and lit one of the stove burners. The kettle was dented but oddly bright, as if she’d just scrubbed it. “I’m thinking of buying a sculpture,” she said. “Nothing big. Sit down, Otto, if you’d like. With some pleasant vertical bits.”

“Good plan,” Otto said. “Where did you find it?”

“Find it?” she said. “Oh. It’s a theoretical sculpture. Abstract in that sense, at least. Because I realized you were right.”

About what? Well, it was certainly plausible that he had once idly said something about a sculpture, possibly when he’d helped her find the place and move in, decades earlier. She remembered encyclopedically her years of education, pages of print, apparently arbitrary details of their histories. And some trivial incident or phrase from their childhood might at any time fetch up from her mind and flop down in front of her, alive and thrashing.

No, but it couldn't be called “remembering” at all, really, could it? That simply wasn’t what people meant by “remembering.” No act of mind or the psyche was needed for Sharon to reclaim anything, because nothing in her brain ever sifted down out of precedence. The passage of time failed to distance, blur, or diminish her experiences. The nacreous layers that formed around the events in one’s history to smooth, distinguish, and beautify them never materialized around Sharon’s; her history skittered here and there in its original sharp grains on a depthless plane that resembled neither calendar nor clock.

“I just had the most intense episode of déjà vu,” William said, as if Otto’s thoughts had sideswiped him. “We were all sitting here — ”

“We are all sitting here,” Otto said.

“But that's what I mean,” William said. “It's supposed to be some kind of synaptic glitch, isn't it?”

“In the view of many neurologists,” Sharon said. “But our understanding of time is dim. It’s patchy. We really don't know to what degree time is linear, and under what circumstances. Is it manifold? Or pleated? Is it frilly? And our relationship to it is extremely problematical.”

“I think it’s a fine idea for you to have a sculpture,” Otto said. “But I don't consider it a necessity.”

Her face was as transparent as a child’s. Or at least as hers had been as a child, reflecting every passing cloud, rippling at the tiniest disturbance. And her smile! The sheer wattage — no one over eleven smiled like that. “We’re using the teabag in the cup method,” she said. “Greater scope for the exercise of free will, streamlined technology … ”

“Oh, goody,” William said. “Darjeeling.”

Otto stared morosely at his immersed bag and the dark halo spreading from it. How long would Sharon need them to stay? When would she want them to go? It was tricky, weaving a course between what might cause her to feel rejected and what might cause her to feel embattled…. Actually, though, how did these things work? Did bits of water escort bits of tea from the bag, or what? “How is flavor disseminated?” he said.

“It has to do with oils,” Sharon said.

Strange, you really couldn't tell, half the time, whether someone was knowledgeable or insane. At school Sharon had shown an astounding talent for the sciences — for everything. For mathematics, especially. Her mind was so rarified, so crystalline, so adventurous, that none of the rest of them could begin to follow. She soared into graduate school, practically still a child; she was one of the few blessed people, it seemed, whose destiny was clear.

Her professors were astonished by her leaps of thought, by the finesse and elegance of her insights. She arrived at hypotheses by sheer intuition and with what eventually one of her mentors described as an almost alarming speed; she was like a dancer, he said, out in the cosmos springing weightlessly from star to star. Drones, merely brilliant, crawled along behind with laborious proofs that supported her assertions.

Perhaps, Otto sometimes consoled himself, they could be forgiven for failing to identify the beginnings.

A tremendous capacity for metaphor, Otto assumed it was; a tremendous sensitivity to the deep structures of the universe. Uncanny. It seemed no more likely that there would be human beings thus equipped than human beings born with satellite dishes growing out of their heads.

He himself was so literal minded he couldn't understand the simplest scientific or mathematical formulation. Plain old electricity, for example, with its amps and volts and charges and conductivity! Metaphors, presumably — metaphors to describe some ectoplasmic tiger in the walls just spoiling to shoot through the wires the instant the cage door was opened and out into the bulb. And molecules! What on earth were people talking about? If the table was actually just a bunch of swarming motes, bound to one another by nothing more than some amicable commonality of form, then why didn’t your teacup crash through it?

But from the time she was tiny, Sharon seemed to be in kindly, light-hearted communion with the occult substances that lay far within and far beyond the human body. It was all as easy for her as reading was for him. She was a creature of the universe. As were they all, come to think of it, though so few were privileged to feel it. And how hospitable and correct she’d made the universe seem when she spoke of even its most rococo and far-fetched attributes!

The only truly pleasurable moments at the family dinner table were those rare occasions when Sharon would talk. He remembered one evening — she would have been in grade school. She was wearing a red sweater; pink barrettes held back her hair. She was speaking of holes in space — holes in nothing! No, not in nothing, Sharon explained patiently — in space. And the others, older and larger, laid down their speared meat and listened, uncomprehending and entranced, as though to distant, wordless singing.

Perhaps, Otto sometimes consoled himself, they could be forgiven for failing to identify the beginnings. How could the rest of them, with their ordinary intellects, have followed Sharon’s rapid and arcane speculations, her penetrating apperceptions, closely enough to identify with any certainty the odd associations and disjunctures that seemed to be showing up in her conversation? In any case, at a certain point as she wandered out among the galaxies, among the whirling particles and ineffable numbers, something leaked in her mind, smudging the text of the cosmos, and she was lost.

Or perhaps, like a lightbulb, she was helplessly receptive to an overwhelming influx. She was so physically delicate, and yet the person to whom she was talking might take a step back. And she, in turn, could be crushed by the slightest shift in someone’s expression or tone. It was as if the chemistry of her personality burned off the cushion of air between herself and others. Then one night she called, very late, to alert Otto to a newspaper article about the sorting of lettuces; if he were to give each letter its numerological value…. The phone cord thrummed with her panic.

When their taxi approached the hospital on that first occasion, Sharon was dank and electric with terror; her skin looked like wet plaster. Otto felt like an assassin as he led her in, and then she was ushered away somewhere. The others joined him in the waiting room, and after several hours had the opportunity to browbeat various doctors into hangdog temporizing. Many people got better, didn’t they, had only one episode, didn’t they, led fully functioning lives? Why wouldn’t Sharon be part of that statistic — she, who was so able, so lively, so sweet — so, in a word, healthy? When would she be all right?

That depended on what they meant by “all right,” one of the doctors replied. “We mean by ‘all right’ what you mean by ‘all right,’ you squirrelly bastard,” Wesley had shouted, empurpling. Martin paced, sizzling and clicking through his teeth, while Otto sat with his head in his hands, but the fateful, brutal, meaningless diagnosis had already been handed down.

“I got a cake,” Sharon said. She glanced at Otto. “Oh. Was that appropriate?”

“Utterly,” William said.

“Appropriate?” What if the cake turned out to be decorated with invisible portents and symbols? What if it revealed itself to be invested with power? To be part of the arsenal of small objects — nail scissors, postage stamps, wrapped candies — that lay about in camouflage to fool the credulous doofus like himself just as they were winking their malevolent signals to Sharon?

Or what if the cake was, after all, only an inert tea-time treat? A cake required thought, effort, expenditure — all that on a negligible scale for most people, but in Sharon’s stripped and cautious life, nothing was negligible. A cake. Wasn’t that enough to bring one to one's knees? “Very appropriate,” Otto concurred.

“Do you miss the fish?” Sharon said, lifting the cake from its box.

Fish? Otto’s heart flipped up, pounding. Oh, the box, fish, nothing.

“We brought them home from the dime store in little cardboard boxes,” she explained to William, passing the cake on its plate and a large knife over to him.

“I had a hamster,” William said. The cake bulged resiliently around the knife.

“Did it have to rush around on one of those things?” Sharon asked.

“I think it liked to,” William said, surprised.

“Let us hope so,” Otto said. “Of course it did.”

“I loved the castles and the colored sand,” Sharon said. “But it was no life for a fish. We had to flush them down the toilet.”

William, normally so fastidious about food, appeared to be happily eating his cake, which tasted, to Otto, like landfill. And William had brought Sharon flowers, which it never would have occurred to Otto to do.

Why had lovely William stayed with disagreeable old him for all this time? What could possibly explain his appeal for William, Otto wondered? Certainly not his appearance, nor his musical sensitivity — middling at best — nor, clearly, his temperament. Others might have been swayed by the money that he made so easily, but not William. William cared as little about that as did Otto himself. And yet, through all these years, William had cleaved to him. Or at least, usually. Most of the uncleavings, in fact, had been Otto’s — brief, preposterous seizures having to do with God knows what. Well, actually he himself would be the one to know what, wouldn’t he, Otto thought. Having to do with — who did know what? Oh, with fear, with flight, the usual. A bit of glitter, a mirage, a chimera…. A lot of commotion just for a glimpse into his own life, the real one — a life more vivid, more truly his, than the one that was daily at hand.


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“Was there something you wanted to see me about?” Sharon asked.

“Well, I just … ” Powerful beams of misery intersected in Otto’s heart; was it true? Did he always have a reason when he called Sharon? Did he never drop in just to say hello? Not that anyone ought to “drop in” on Sharon. Or on anyone, actually. How barbarous.

“Your brother’s here in an ambassadorial capacity,” William said. “I’m just here for the cake.”

“Ambassadorial?” Sharon looked alarmed.

“Oh, it’s only Thanksgiving,” Otto said. “Corinne was hoping — I was hoping — ”

“Otto, I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t want to sit there being an exhibit of robust good health, or non-contaminatingness, or the triumph of the human spirit, or whatever it is that Corinne needs me to illustrate. Just tell them everything is okay.”

He looked at his cake. William was right. This was terribly unfair. “Well, I don’t blame you,” he said. “I wouldn’t go myself, if I could get out of it.”

“If you had a good-enough excuse.”

“I only — ” But of course it was exactly what he had meant; he had meant that Sharon had a good-enough excuse. “I’m — ”

“Tell Corinne I’m all right.”

Otto started to speak again, but stopped.

“Otto, please.” Sharon looked at her hands, folded in her lap.

“It’s all right.”

“I’ve sometimes wondered if it might not be possible, in theory, to remember something that you — I mean the aspect of yourself that you’re aware of — haven’t experienced yet,” William said later. “I mean, you really don’t know whether time is linear, so — ”

“Would you stop that?” Otto said. “You’re not insane.”

“I’m merely speaking theoretically.”

“Well, don’t! And your memory has nothing to do with whether time is ‘really,’ whatever you mean by that, linear. It’s plenty linear for us! Cradle to grave? Over the hill? It’s a one-way street, my dear. My hair is not sometimes there and sometimes not there. We’re not getting any younger.”

At moments it occurred to Otto that what explained his appeal for William was the fact that they lived in the same apartment. That William was idiotically accepting, idiotically pliant. Perhaps William was so deficient in subtlety, so insensitive to nuance, that he simply couldn’t tell the difference between Otto and anyone else. “And, William — I wish you’d get back to your tennis.”

“It’s a bore. Besides, you didn’t want me playing with Jason, as I remember.”

“Well, I was out of my mind. And at this point it’s your arteries I worry about.”

“You know,” William said; he put his graceful hand on Otto’s arm. “I don't think she’s any more unhappy than the rest of us, really, most of the time. That smile! I mean, that smile can’t come out of nowhere.”

There actually were no children to speak of. Corinne and Wesley’s “boys” put in a brief, unnerving appearance. When last seen, they had been surly, furtive, persecuted-looking, snickering, hulking, hairy adolescents, and now here they were, having undergone the miraculous transformation. How gratified Wesley must be! They had shed their egalitarian denim chrysalis and had risen up in the crisp, mean mantle of their class.

The older one even had a wife, whom Corinne treated with a stricken, fluttery deference as if she were a suitcase full of weapons-grade plutonium. The younger one was restlessly on his own. When, early in the evening the three stood, and announced to Corinne with thuggish placidity that they were about to leave (“I'm afraid we’ve got to shove off now, Ma”), Otto jumped to his feet. As he allowed his hand to be crushed, he felt the relief of a mayor watching an occupying power depart his city.

Martin’s first squadron of children (Maureen’s) weren’t even mentioned. Who knew what army of relatives, step-relatives, half-relatives they were reinforcing by now. But there were — Otto shuddered faintly — Martin's two newest (Laurie’s). Yes, just as Corinne had said, they, too, were growing up. Previously indistinguishable wads of self-interest, they had developed perceptible features — maybe even characteristics; it appeared reasonable, after all, that they had been given names.

What on earth was it that William did to get children to converse? Whenever Otto tried to have a civilized encounter with a child, the child just stood there with its finger in its nose. But Martin’s two boys were chattering away, showing off to William their whole heap of tiresome electronics.

William was frowning with interest. He poked at a keyboard, which sent up a shower of festive little beeps, and the boys flung themselves at him, cheering, while Laurie smiled meltingly. How times had changed. Not so many years earlier, such a tableau would have had handcuffs rattling in the wings.

The only other representative of “the children” to whom Corinne had referred with such pathos was Martin’s daughter, Portia (Viola’s). She’d been hardly more than a toddler at last sight, though she now appeared to be about — what? Well, anyhow, a little girl. “What are the domestic arrangements?” Otto asked. “Is she living with Martin and Laurie these days, or is she with her mother?”

“That crazy Viola has gone back to England, thank God; Martin has de facto custody.”

“Speaking of Martin, where is he?”

“I don't ask,” Corinne said.

Otto waited.

“I don't ask,” Corinne said again. “And if Laurie wants to share, she’ll tell you herself.”

“Is Martin in the pokey already?” Otto asked.

“This is not a joke, Otto. I’m sorry to tell you that Martin has been having an affair with some girl.”


Corinne stalled, elaborately adjusting her bracelet. “I’m sorry to tell you she’s his trainer.”

“His trainer? How can Martin have a trainer? If Martin has a trainer, what can explain Martin’s body?”

“Otto, it’s not funny,” Corinne said with ominous primness. “The fact is, Martin has been looking very good, lately. But of course you wouldn’t have seen him.”

All those wives — and a trainer! How? Why would any woman put up with Martin? Martin, who always used to eat his dessert so slowly that the rest of them had been made to wait, squirming at the table, watching as he took his voluptuous, showy bites of chocolate cake or floating island long after they’d finished their own.

Fear had vacuumed the blood right through his extremities. One’s body, the primeval parts of one’s brain—how fast they were!

“I’m afraid it’s having consequences for Portia. Do you see what she’s doing?”

“She’s — ” Otto squinted over at Portia. “What is she doing?”

“Portia, come here, darling,” Corinne called.

Portia looked at them for a moment, then wandered sedately over. “And now we’ll have a word with Aunt Corinne,” she said to her fist as she approached. “Hello, Aunt Corinne.”

“Portia,” Corinne said, “do you remember Uncle Otto?”

“And Uncle Otto,” Portia added to her fist. She regarded him with a clear, even gaze. In its glade of light and silence they encountered one another serenely. She held out her fist to him. “Would you tell our listeners what you do when you go to work, Uncle Otto?”

“Well,” Otto said, to Portia's fist, “first I take the elevator up to the twentieth floor, and then I sit down at my desk, and then I send Bryan out for coffee and a bagel — ”

“Otto,” Corinne said, “Portia is trying to learn what it is you do. Something I'm sure we'd all like to know.”

“Oh,” Otto said. “Well, I’m a lawyer, dear. Do you know what that is?”

“Otto,” Corinne said wearily, “Portia’s father is a lawyer.”

“Portia’s father is a global-money mouthpiece!” Otto said.

“Aunt Corinne is annoyed,” Portia commented to her fist. “Now Uncle Otto and Aunt Corinne are looking at your correspondent. Now they’re not.”

“Tell me, Portia,” Otto said; the question had sprung insistently into his mind, “what are you going to be when you grow up?”

Her gaze was strangely relaxing. “You know, Uncle Otto," she said pensively to her fist, “people used to ask me that a lot.”

Huh! Yes, that was probably something people asked only very small children, when speculation would be exclusively a matter of amusing fantasy. “Well, I was only just mulling it over,” Otto said.

“Portia, darling,” Corinne said, “why don’t you run into the kitchen and do a cooking segment with Bea and Cleveland?”

“It's incredible,” Otto said when Portia disappeared, “she looks exactly like Sharon did at that age.”

“Ridiculous,” Corinne said. “She takes after her father.”

Martin? Stuffy, venal Martin, with his nervous eyes and scoopy nose, and squashy head balanced on his shirt collar? Portia's large, gray eyes, the flaxen hair, the slightly oversized ears and fragile neck recapitulated absolutely Sharon's appearance in this child who probably wouldn't remember ever having seen Sharon. “Her father?”

“Her father,” Corinne said. “Martin. Portia’s father.”

“I know Martin is her father. I just can’t divine the resemblance.”

“Well, there’s certainly no resemblance to — Wesley — ” Corinne called over to him. “Must you read the newspaper? This is a social occasion. Otto, will you listen, please? I’m trying to tell you something. The truth is, we’re all quite worried about Portia.”

Amazing how fast one’s body reacted. Fear had vacuumed the blood right through his extremities. One’s body, the primeval parts of one’s brain — how fast they were! Much faster than that recent part with the words and thoughts and so on, what was it? The cortex, was that it? He’d have to ask William, he thought, his blood settling back down. That sort of wrinkly stuff on top that looked like crumpled wrapping paper.

“Laurie is worried sick. The truth is, that’s one reason I was so anxious for you to join us today. I wanted your opinion on the matter.”

“On what matter?” Otto said. “I have no idea what this is about. She’s fine. She seems fine. She’s just playing.”

“I know she’s just playing, Otto. It’s what she’s playing that concerns me.”

“What she’s playing? What is she playing? She’s playing radio, or something! Is that so sinister? The little boys seem to be playing something called Hammer Her Flat.”

“I’m sure not. Oh, gracious. You and Sharon were both so right not to have children.”

“Excuse me?” Otto said incredulously.

“It’s not the radio aspect per se that I’m talking about, it’s what that represents. The child is an observer. She sees herself as an outsider. As alienated.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being observant. Other members of this family could benefit from a little of that quality.”

“She can’t relate directly to people.”

“Who can?” Otto said.

“Half the time Viola doesn’t even remember the child is alive! You watch. She won’t send Portia a Christmas present. She probably won’t even call. Otto, listen. We’ve always said that Viola is ‘unstable,’ but, frankly, Viola is psychotic. Do you understand what I’m saying to you? Portia’s mother, Otto. It’s just as you were saying, there’s a geneti —

“I was saying what? I was saying nothing! I was only saying — ”

“Oh, dear!” Laurie exclaimed. She had an arm around Portia, who was crying.

“What in hell is going on now?” Wesley demanded, slamming down his newspaper.

“I’m afraid Bea and Cleveland may have said something to her,” Laurie said, apologetically.

“Oh, terrific,” Wesley said. “Now I know what I’m paying them for.”

“It’s all right, sweetie,” Laurie said. “It all happened a long time ago.”

“But why are we celebrating that we killed them?” Portia asked, and started crying afresh.

“We’re not celebrating because we killed the Indians, darling,” Laurie said. “We’re celebrating because we ate dinner with them.”

“Portia still believes in Indians!” one of the little boys exclaimed.

“So do we all, Josh,” Wesley said. “They live at the North Pole and make toys for good little — ”

“Wesley, please!” Corinne said.

“Listener poll,” Portia said to her fist. “Did we eat dinner with the Indians, or did we kill them?” She strode over to Otto and held out her fist.

“We ate dinner with them and then we killed them,” Otto realized, out loud to his surprise.

“Who are you to slag off Thanksgiving, old boy?” Wesley said. “You’re wearing a fucking bow tie.”

“So are you, for that matter,” Otto said, awkwardly embracing Portia, who was crying again.

“And I stand behind my tie,” Wesley said, rippling upward from his chair.

Not that it was William’s job to explicate the foggy assumptions of one’s culture, but one’s own ineptitude was galling enough; one hardly needed to consult a vacuity expert!

“It was Portia's birthday last week!” Laurie interrupted loudly, and Wesley sank back down. “Wasn’t it!”

Portia nodded, gulping, and wiped at her tears.

“How old are you now, Portia?” William asked.

“Nine,” Portia said.

“That’s great,” William said. “Get any good stuff?”

Portia nodded again.

“And Portia’s mommy sent a terrific present, didn't she,” Laurie said.

“Oh, what was it, sweetie?” Corinne said.

Laurie turned pink and her head seemed to flare out slightly in various directions. “You don't have to say, darling, if you don’t like.”

Portia held on to the arm of Otto’s chair and swung her leg aimlessly back and forth. “My mother gave me two tickets to go to Glyndebourne on my eighteenth birthday,” she said in a tiny voice.

Wesley snorted. “Got your outfit all picked out, Portia?”

“I won't be going to Glyndebourne, Uncle Wesley,” Portia said with dignity.

There was a sudden silence in the room.

“Why not, dear?” Otto asked. He was trembling, he noticed.

Portia looked out at all of them. Tears still clung to her face. “Because.” She raised her fist to her mouth again. “Factoid: According to the Mayan calendar, the world is going to end in the year 2012, the year before this reporter’s eighteenth birthday.”

“All right,” Corinne whispered to Otto. “Now do you see?”

“YOU’RE RIGHT, AS ALWAYS,” Otto said, in the taxi later, “they’re no worse than anyone else’s. They’re all awful. I really don’t see the point in it. Just think! Garden garden garden garden garden, two happy people, and it could have gone on forever! They knew, they’d been told, but they ate it anyway, and from there on out, family! Shame, fear, jobs, mortality, envy, murder … ”

“Well,” William said brightly, “and sex.”

“There’s that,” Otto conceded.

“In fact, you could look at both family and mortality simply as by-products of sexual reproduction.”

“I don't really see the point of sexual reproduction, either,” Otto said. “I wouldn’t stoop to it.”

“Actually, that’s very interesting, you know; they think that the purpose of sexual reproduction is to purge the genome of harmful mutations. Of course, they also seem to think it isn’t working.”

“Then why not scrap it?” Otto said. “Why not let us divide again, like our dignified and immortal forebear, the amoeba.”

William frowned. “I’m not really sure that — ”

“Joke,” Otto said.

“Oh, yes. Well, but I suppose sexual reproduction is fairly entrenched by now — people aren’t going to give it up without a struggle. And besides, family confers certain advantages as a social unit, doesn’t it.”

“No. What advantages?”

“Oh, rudimentary education. Protection.”

“‘Education’! Ha! ‘Protection’! Ha!”

“Besides,” William pointed out. “It’s broadening. You meet people in your family you’d never happen to run into otherwise. And anyhow, obviously the desire for children is hard-wired.”

“‘Hard-wired’ — You know, that’s a term I’ve really come to loathe! It explains nothing, it justifies anything; you might as well say, ‘Humans want children because the Great Moth in the Sky requires them to.’ Or ‘Humans want children because humans want children.’ ‘Hard-wired,’ please! It’s lazy, it’s specious, it’s perfunctory, and it’s utterly without depth.”

“Why does it have to have depth?” William said. “It refers to depth. It’s good, clean science.”

“It’s not science at all, it’s a cliché. It’s a redundancy.”

“Otto, why do you always scoff at me when I raise a scientific point?”

“I don’t! I don’t scoff at you. I certainly don’t mean to. It’s just that this particular phrase, used in this particular way isn’t very interesting. I mean, you’re telling me that something is biologically inherent in human experience, but you’re not telling me anything about human experience.”

“I wasn't intending to,” William said. “I wasn't trying to. If you want to talk about human experience, then let’s talk about it.”

“All right,” Otto said. It was painful, of course, to see William irritated, but almost a relief to know that it could actually happen. “Let’s, then. By all means.”



“Any particular issues?” William said. “Any questions?”

Any! Billions. But that was always just the problem: how to disentangle one; how to pluck it up and clothe it in presentable words? Otto stared, concentrating. Questions were roiling in the pit of his mind like serpents, now a head rising up from the seething mass, now a rattling tail…. He closed his eyes. If only he could get his brain to relax … Relax, relax … Relax, relax, relax…. “Oh, you know, William — is there anything at home to eat? Believe it or not, I’m starving again."

There was absolutely no reason to fear that Portia would have anything other than an adequately happy, adequately fruitful life. No reason at all. Oh, how prudent of Sharon not to have come yesterday. Though in any case, she had been as present to the rest of them as if she had been sitting on the sofa. And the rest of them had probably been as present to her as she had been to them.

When one contemplated Portia, when one contemplated Sharon, when one contemplated one’s own apparently pointless, utterly trivial being, the questions hung all around one, as urgent as knives at the throat. But the instant one tried to grasp one of them and turn it to one’s own purpose and pierce through the murk, it became as blunt and useless as a piece of cardboard.

All one could dredge up were platitudes: one comes into the world alone, snore snore; one, snore snore, departs the world alone….

What would William have to say? Well, it was a wonderful thing to live with an inquiring and mentally active person; no one could quarrel with that. William was immaculate in his intentions, unflagging in his efforts. But what drove one simply insane was the vagueness. Or, really, the banality. Not that it was William’s job to explicate the foggy assumptions of one’s culture, but one’s own ineptitude was galling enough; one hardly needed to consult a vacuity expert!

And how could one think at all, or even just casually ruminate, with William practicing, as he had been doing since they’d awakened. Otto had forgotten what a strain it all was — even without any exasperating social nonsense — those few days preceding the concert; you couldn’t think, you couldn’t concentrate on the newspaper. You couldn’t even really hear the phone, which seemed to be ringing now —

Nor could you make any sense of what the person on the other end of it might be saying. “What?” Otto shouted into it. “You what?”

Could he — the phone cackled into the lush sheaves of William’s arpeggios — bribery, sordid out —

“William — ” Otto yelled. “Excuse me? Could I what?”

The phone cackled some more. “Excuse me,” Otto said. “William —

The violin went quiet. “Excuse me?” Otto said again into the phone, which was continuing to emit jibberish. “Sort what out? Took her where from the library?”

“I’m trying to explain, sir,” the phone said. “I’m calling from the hospital.”

“She was taken from the library by force?”

“Unfortunately sir, as I’ve tried to explain, she was understood to be homeless.”

“And so she was taken away? By force? That could be construed as kidnapping, you know.”


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“I’m only reporting what the records indicate, sir. The records do not indicate that your sister was kidnapped.”

“I don’t understand. Is it a crime to be homeless?”

“Apparently your sister did not claim to be homeless. Apparently your sister claimed to rent an apartment. Is this not the case? Is your sister in fact homeless?”

“My sister is not homeless! My sister rents an apartment! Is that a crime? What does this have to do with why my sister was taken away, by force, from the library?”

“Sir, I’m calling from the hospital.”

“I’m a taxpayer!” Otto shouted. William was standing in the doorway, violin in one hand, bow in the other, watching gravely. “I’m a lawyer! Why is information being withheld from me?”

“Information is not being withheld from you, sir, please! I understand that you are experiencing concern, and I’m trying to explain this situation in a way that you will understand what has occurred. It is a policy that homeless people tend to congregate in the library, using the restrooms, and some of these people may be removed, if, for example, these people exhibit behaviors that are perceived to present a potential danger.”

“Are you reading this from something? Is it a crime to use a public bathroom?”

“When people who do not appear to have homes to go to, appear to be confused and disoriented — ”

“Is it a crime to be confused?”

“Please calm down, sir. The evaluation was not ours. What I’m trying to tell you is that according to the report, your sister became obstreperous when she was brought to the homeless shelter. She appeared to be disoriented. She did not appear to understand why she was being taken to the homeless shelter.”

“SHALL I GO WITH YOU?” William said, when Otto put down the phone.

“No,” Otto said. “Stay, please. Practice.”

So, once again. Waiting in the dingy whiteness, the fearsome whiteness no doubt of heaven, heaven’s sensible shoes, overtaxed heaven’s obtuse smiles and ruthless tranquillity, heaven’s asphyxiating clouds dropped over the screams bleeding faintly from behind closed doors. He waited in a room with others too dazed even to note the television that hissed and bristled in front of them or to turn the pages of the sticky, dog-eared magazines they held, from which they could have learned how to be happy, wealthy, and sexually appealing; they waited, like Otto, to learn instead what it was that destiny had already handed down: bad, not that bad, very, very bad.

The doctor, to whom Otto was eventually conducted through the elderly bowels of the hospital, looked like an epic hero — shining, arrogant, supple. “She’ll be fine, now,” he said. “You’ll be fine now, won’t you?”

Sharon’s smile, the sudden birth of a little sun, and the doctor’s own brilliant smile met, and ignited for an instant. Otto felt as though a missile had exploded in his chest.

“Don’t try biting any of those guys from the city again,” the doctor said, giving Sharon’s childishly rounded, childishly humble shoulder a companionable pat. “They’re poisonous.”

“Bite them!” Otto exclaimed, admiration leaping up in him like a dog at a chain-link fence, on the other side of which a team of uniformed men rushed at his defenseless sister with clubs.

“I did?” Sharon cast a repentant, sidelong glance at the doctor.

The doctor shrugged and flipped back his blue-black hair, dislodging sparkles of handsomeness. “The file certainly painted an unflattering portrait of your behavior. ‘Menaced dentally,’ it says, or something of the sort. Now, listen. Take care of yourself. Follow Dr. Shiga’s instructions. Because I don't want to be seeing you around here, okay?”

He and Sharon looked at each other for a moment, then traded a little, level, intimate smile. “It's okay with me,” she said.

Otto took Sharon to a coffee shop near her apartment and bought her two portions of macaroni and cheese.

“How was it?” she said. “How was everyone?”

“Thanksgiving? Oh. You didn’t miss much.”

She put down her fork. “Aren’t you going to have anything, Otto?”

“I’ll have something later with William,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. She sat very still. “Of course.”

He was a monster. Well, no one was perfect. But in any case, her attention returned to her macaroni. Not surprising that she was ravenous. How long had her adventures lasted? Her clothing was rumpled and filthy.

“I didn't know you liked the library,” he said.

“Don’t think I’m not grateful for the computer,” she said. “It was down.”

He nodded, and didn't press her.

There was a bottle of wine breathing on the table, and William had managed to maneuver dinner out of the mysterious little containers and the limp bits of organic matter from the fridge, which Otto had inspected earlier in a doleful search for lunch.

“Bad?” William asked.

“Fairly,” Otto said.

“Want to tell me?” William said.

Otto gestured impatiently. “Oh, what’s the point.”

“Okay,” William said. “Mustard with that? It’s good.”

“I can’t stand it that she has to live like this!” Otto said.

William shook his head. “Everyone is so alone,” he said.

Otto yelped.

“What?” William said. “What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Otto said. He stood, trying to control his trembling. “I’m going to my study. You go on upstairs when you get tired.”



He sat downstairs in his study with a book in his hand, listening while William rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher, and went, finally, upstairs. For some time, footsteps persisted oppressively in the bedroom overhead. When they ceased, Otto exhaled with relief.

A pale tincture spread into the study window; the pinched little winter sun was rising over the earth, above the neighbors’ buildings. Otto listened while William came down and made himself breakfast, then returned upstairs to practice once again.

The day sat heavily in front of Otto, like an opponent judging the moment to strike. How awful everything was. How awful he was. How bestial he had been to William; William, who deserved only kindness, only gratitude.

And yet the very thought of glimpsing that innocent face was intolerable. It had been a vastly unpleasant night in the chair, and it would be hours, he knew, before he’d be able to manage an apology without more denunciations leaping from his treacherous mouth.

Hours seemed to be passing, in fact. Or maybe it was minutes. The clock said seven, said ten, said twelve, said twelve, said twelve, seemed to be delirious. Fortunately there were leftovers in the fridge.

Well, if time was the multiplicity Sharon and William seemed to believe it was, maybe it contained multiple Sharons, perhaps some existing in happier conditions before the tracks diverged, one set leading up into the stars, the other down to the hospital. Otto’s mind wandered here and there amid the dimensions catching glimpses of her skirt, her hair, her hand, as she slipped through the mirrors. Did things have to proceed for each of the Sharons in just exactly the same way?

To think there could be an infinitude of selves, and not an iota of latitude for any of them! An infinitude of Ottos, lugging around that personality, those circumstances, that appearance.

Did each one grieve for the Olympian destiny that ought to have been hers? Did each grieve for an ordinary life — a life full of ordinary pleasures and troubles — children, jobs, lovers?

Everyone is so alone. For this, all the precious Sharons had to flounder through their loops and tucks of eternity; for this the shutters were drawn on their aerial and light-filled minds. Each and every Sharon, thrashing through the razor-edged days only in order to be absorbed by this spongy platitude: Everyone is so alone! great God, how could it be endured? All the Sharons, for ever and ever, discarded in a phrase.

And those Ottos, sprinkled through the zones of actuality — What were the others doing now? The goldfish gliding, gliding, within the severe perimeter of water; William pausing to introduce himself….

Yes, so of course one felt incomplete; of course one felt obstructed and blind. And perhaps every creature on earth, on all the earths, was straining at the obdurate membranes to reunite as its own original entity, the spark of unique consciousness allocated to each being, only then to be irreconcilably refracted through world after world by the prism of time. No wonder one tended to feel so fragile — it was exasperating enough just trying to have contact with a few other people, let alone with all of one’s selves!

To think there could be an infinitude of selves, and not an iota of latitude for any of them! An infinitude of Ottos, lugging around that personality, those circumstances, that appearance. Not only once dreary and pointless, but infinitely so.

Oh, was there no escape? Perhaps if one could only concentrate hard enough they could be collected, all those errant, enslaved selves. And in the triumphant instant of their reunification, distilled to an unmarked essence, the suffocating Otto-costumes dissolving, a true freedom at last. Oh, how tired he was! But why not make the monumental effort?

Because Naomi and Margaret were arriving at nine to show off this baby of theirs, that was why not.

And anyhow, what on earth was he thinking?

Still, at least he could apologize to William. He was himself, but at least he could go fling that inadequate self at William’s feet!

No. At the very least he could let poor, deserving William practice undisturbed. He’d wait — patiently, patiently — and when William was finished, William would come downstairs. Then Otto could apologize abjectly, spread every bit of his worthless being at William’s feet, comfort him and be comforted, reassure him and be reassured….

At a few minutes before nine, William appeared, whistling.

Whistling! “Good practice session?” Otto said. His voice came out cracked, as if it had been hurled against the high prison walls of himself.

“Terrific,” William said, and kissed him lightly on the forehead.

Otto opened his mouth. “You know — ” he said.

“Oh, listen — ” William said. “There really is a baby!” And faintly interspersed among Naomi and Margaret’s familiar creakings and bumpings in the hall Otto heard little chirps and gurgles.

“Hello, hello!” William cried, flinging open the door. “Look, isn’t she fabulous?”

“We think so,” Naomi said, her smile renewing and renewing itself. “Well, she is.”

“I can’t see if you do that,” Margaret said, disengaging the earpiece of her glasses and a clump of her red, crimpy hair from the baby’s fist as she attempted to transfer the baby over to William.

“Here.” Naomi held out a bottle of champagne. “Take this, too. Well, but you can’t keep the baby. Wow, look, she’s fascinated by Margaret’s hair. I mean, who isn’t?”

Otto wasn’t, despite his strong feelings about hair in general. “Should we open this up and drink it?” he said, his voice a mechanical voice, his hand a mechanical hand accepting the bottle.

“That was the idea,” Naomi said. She blinked up at Otto, smiling hopefully, and rocking slightly from heel to toe.

“Sit. Sit everyone,” William said. “Oh, she’s sensational!”

Otto turned away to open the champagne and pour it into the lovely glasses somebody or another had given to them sometime or another.

“Well, cheers,” William said. “Congratulations. And here’s to — ”

“Molly,” Margaret said. “We decided to keep it simple.”

“We figured she’s got so much working against her already,” Naomi said, "including a couple of geriatric moms with a different ethnicity, and God only knows what infant memories, or whatever you call that stuff you don’t remember. We figured we’d name her something nice, that didn’t set up all kinds of expectations. Just a nice, friendly, pretty name. And she can take it from there.”

“She’ll be taking it from there in any case,” Otto said, grimly.

The others looked at him.

“I love Maggie,” Naomi said. “I always wanted a Maggie, but Margaret said — ”

“Well.” Margaret shrugged. “I mean — ”

“No, I know,” Naomi said. “But.”

Margaret rolled a little white quilt out on the rug. Plunked down on it, the baby sat, wobbling, with an expression of surprise.

“Look at her!” William said.

“Here’s hoping,” Margaret said, raising her glass.

So, marvelous. Humans were born, they lived. They glued themselves together in little clumps, and then they died. It was no more, as William had once cheerfully explained, than a way for genes to perpetuate themselves. “The selfish gene,” he’d said, quoting, probably detrimentally, someone; you were put on earth to fight for your DNA.

Let the organisms chat. Let them talk. Their voices were as empty as the tinklings of a player-piano. Let the organisms talk about this and that; it was what (as William had so trenchantly pointed out) this particular carbon-based life-form did, just as its cousin (according to William) the roundworm romped ecstatically beneath the surface of the planet.

"I’m more selfish than my own genes. I’m not fighting for my DNA, I’m fighting against it!”

He tried to intercept the baby’s glossy, blurry stare. The baby was actually attractive, for a baby, and not bald at all, as it happened. Hello, Otto thought to it, let’s you and I communicate in some manner far superior to the verbal one.

The baby ignored him. Whatever she was making of the blanket, the table legs, the shod sets of feet, she wasn’t about to let on to Otto. Well, see if he cared.

William was looking at him. So, what was he supposed to do? Oh, all right, he’d contribute. Despite his current clarity of mind.

“And how was China?” he asked. “Was the food as bad as they say?”

Naomi looked at him blankly. “Well, I don’t know, actually,” she said. “Honey, how was the food?”

“The food,” Margaret said. “Not memorable, apparently.”

“The things people have to do in order to have children,” Otto said.

“We toyed with the idea of giving birth,” Margaret said. “That is, Naomi toyed with it.”

“At first,” Naomi said, “I thought, what a shame to miss an experience that nature intended for us. And, I mean, there was this guy at work, or of course there’s always — But then I thought, what, am I an idiot? I mean, just because you’ve got arms and legs, it doesn’t mean you have to — ”

“No,” William said. “But still. I can understand how you felt.”

“Have to what?” Margaret said.

“I can’t,” Otto said.

“Have to what?” Margaret said.

“I can’t understand it,” Otto said. “I’ve just never envied the capacity. Others are awestruck, not I. I’ve never even remotely wished I were able to give birth, and in fact, I’ve never wanted a baby. Of course it’s inhuman not to want one, but I’m just not human. I’m not a human being. William is a human being. Maybe William wanted a baby. I never thought to ask. Was that what you were trying to tell me the other day, William? Were you trying to tell me that I’ve ruined your life? Did you want a baby? Have I ruined your life? Well, it’s too bad. I’m sorry. I was too selfish ever to ask if you wanted one, and I’m too selfish to want one myself. I’m more selfish than my own genes. I’m not fighting for my DNA, I’m fighting against it!”

“I’m happy as I am,” William said. He sat, his arms wrapped tightly around himself, looking at the floor. The baby coughed. “Who needs more champagne?”

“You see?” Otto said into the tundra of silence William left behind him as he retreated into the kitchen, “I really am a monster.”

Miles away, Naomi sat blushing, her hands clasped in her lap. Then she scooped up the baby. “There, there,” she said.

But Margaret sat back, eyebrows raised in semi-circles, contemplating something that seemed to be hanging a few feet under the ceiling. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, and the room shuttled back into proportion. “I suppose you could say it’s human to want a child, in the sense that it’s biologically mandated. But I mean, you could say that, or you could say it’s simply unimaginative. Or you could say it’s unselfish or you could say it’s selfish, or you could say pretty much anything about it at all. Or you could just say, well, I want one. But when you get right down to it, really, one what? Because, actually — I mean, well, look at Molly. I mean, actually, they’re awfully specific.”

“I suppose I meant, like, crawl around on all fours, or something,” Naomi said. “I mean, just because you’ve got — But look, there they already are, all these babies, so many of them, just waiting, waiting, waiting on the shelves for someone to take care of them. We could have gone to Romania, we could have gone to Guatemala, we could have gone almost anywhere — just for various reasons, we decided to go to China.”

“And we both really liked the idea,” Margaret said, “that you could go as far away as you could possibly get, and there would be your child.”

“Uh huh,” Naomi nodded, soberly. “How crazy is that?”

“I abase myself,” Otto told William as they washed and dried the champagne glasses. “I don't need to tell you how deeply I’ll regret having embarrassed you in front of Naomi and Margaret.” He clasped the limp dishtowel to his heart. “How deeply I’ll regret having been insufficiently mawkish about the miracle of life. I don’t need to tell you how ashamed I’ll feel the minute I calm down. How deeply I’ll regret having trampled your life, and how deeply I’ll regret being what I am. Well, that last part I regret already. I profoundly regret every tiny crumb of myself. I don’t need to go into it all once again, I’m sure. Just send back the form, pertinent boxes checked: ‘I intend to accept your forthcoming apology for — ’”

“Please stop,” William said.

“Oh, how awful to have ruined the life of such a marvelous man! Have I ruined your life? You can tell me; we're friends.”

“Otto, I’m going upstairs now. I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m tired.”

“Yes, go upstairs.”

“Good night,” William said.

“Yes, go to sleep, why not?” Oh, it was like trying to pick a fight with a dog toy! “Just you go on off to sleep.”

“Otto, listen to me. My concert is tomorrow. I want to be able to play adequately. I don’t know why you’re unhappy. You do interesting work, you’re admired, we live in a wonderful place, we have wonderful friends. We have everything we need and most of the things we want. We have excellent lives by anyone’s standard. I’m happy, and I wish you were. I know that you’ve been upset these last few days, I asked if you wanted to talk, and you said you didn’t. Now you do, but this happens to be the one night of the year when I most need my sleep. Can it wait till tomorrow? I’m very tired, and you’re obviously very tired, as well. Try and get some sleep, please.”

“‘Try and get some sleep?’ ‘Try and get some sleep?’ This is unbearable! I’ve spent the best years of my life with a man who doesn’t know how to use the word ‘and’! ‘And’ is not part of the infinitive! ‘And’ means ‘in addition to.’ It’s not ‘Try and get some sleep,’ it’s ‘Try to get some sleep’—To! To! To! To! To! To! To! Please try to get some sleep!

Otto sat down heavily at the kitchen table and began to sob.

How arbitrary it all was, and cruel. This identity, that identity: Otto, William, Portia, Molly, the doctor….

She’d be up now, sitting at her own kitchen table, the white enamel table with a cup of tea, thinking about something, about numbers streaming past in stately sequences, about remote astral pageants…. The doctor had rested his hand kindly on her shoulder. And what she must have felt then! Oh, to convert that weight of the world’s compassion into something worthwhile — the taste, if only she could have lifted his hand and kissed it, the living satin feel of his skin…. Everyone had to put things aside, to put things aside for good.

The way they had smiled at one another, she and that doctor! What can you do, their smiles had said. The handsome doctor in his handsome-doctor suit and Sharon in her disheveled-lunatic suit; what a charade. In this life, Sharon’s little spark of consciousness would be costumed inescapably as a waif at the margins of mental organization and the doctor’s would be costumed inescapably as a flashing exemplar of supreme competence; in this life (and, frankly, there would be no other) the hospital was where they would meet.

“Otto — ”

A hand was resting on Otto’s shoulder.

“William,” Otto said. It was William. They were in the clean, dim kitchen. The full moon had risen high over the neighbors’ buildings, where the lights were almost all out. Had he been asleep? He blinked up at William, whose face, shadowed against the light of the night sky, was as inflected, as ample in mystery as the face in the moon. “It’s late, my darling,” Otto said. “I’m tired. What are we doing down here?”

The original print version of this story has been corrected from “more truly his, that the one that was daily at hand” to “more truly his, than the one that was daily at hand.”

Deborah Eisenberg is an American short story writer. She is the author of collections including Transactions in a Foreign Currency, All Around Atlantis, and Your Duck is My Duck, as well as a play, Pastorale.
Originally published:
January 1, 2003


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