WINDOWS REFLECT SOME LIGHT
He was placing the sprinkler on his small front lawn when she got out of her two-tone Buick Le Sabre at the curb and approached. "It's me," she said.
She went right by him, up his porch steps, and into his house, while he stood on the lawn.
He had never seen her before.
Through a window, he caught glimpses of her indistinct form, like a fish in turbid water. He stepped toward the window glass, which both reflected light and let it through. Then he leaned down, and through the bottom open half of the old double-hung window, he said: "I don't believe we've met."
"I am who I said I was," she replied, "and that's all that matters." She threw her handbag and a thick, three-ring binder on his dining room table.
He laughed to himself. He pressed three fingers against the window screen. "I don't think you're likely to be the type of person I can expect you to be."
"And isn't that kind of exciting?" she called back.
It did intrigue him that she had gone into his house ahead of him, as if she had a prior claim or was at least fantastically rude, a disposition which he thought had a lot of potential somehow.
He decided it was time to go into his house.
"And if I crawl across your living room floor on my hands and knees like a naughty maid, would you spank me?" she asked, as he stepped inside.
"I said, are you interested in new shades, for all these bare windows? That's what I sell." She stood hipshot near a dining room chair.
"You sell shades?" He might have misheard her the first time or he might have heard her perfectly.
He looked closely at her, as if he had never seen a person before. Her face had a pleasing bilateral symmetry. Since everyone he had ever known had refused to die, the world had taken on the sameness of a painting hung over a couch in a living room for decades, impervious to the change of seasons and all the different shades of light.
Why, he wondered, why had no one in his life died so as to give it that spark of drama that made watching TV shows after a long day somehow more poignant? Why did he seem to live in an emotional eddy of some kind?
He was young. He wasn't sure.
He was surfing his first full-time job: writing trust operations software for a mid-size regional bank. Some might have said he had bought more home than he could afford, but he knew better. He would not rent.
"I sell window coverings of all kinds—drapes, blinds, shades," she said, walking past him and into the living room. "Burnt orange drapes would suit your windows there. The ones in front. The painting over the mantel has to go."
"I know," he said.
They had three children, each like lightning striking the same golf putter raised in triumph three separate times. It had been a long while since the curves of her body had excited him. She sometimes wore raincoats indoors now.
Then one afternoon, after he had poured Liquid Plumber "Foaming Pipe Snake" down the slow bathtub drain, the phone rang.
"Is my mother there?" the voice said. It sounded too old to be one of their children.
"May I ask who's calling?"
"And what is your name?"
"I'm sorry but that name doesn't ring a bell."
"My mother's name is Samantha. She lives with you. You married her, but before you were there, I was here." The caller sounded like a fifteen-year-old who had spent much of his life alone, as, of course, he himself had. His heart went out to the deranged male teenager.
"I don't doubt it," he said.
"Don't try to mess with me," Chet said.
"I never try anything," he responded. "I don't know how to try things. I don't even wash my hands anymore. I just hold them over the dry sink and think about cleaning them. Isn't that strange?"
He certainly felt strange speaking in this way to his, what—his step-son? Maybe there was no relation at all, since there could have been no intent behind the establishment of it. It had been so long since he had worked in an office, where he had learned so much about other people; if he hadn't turned to trading stocks on his computer to make his living, there's no telling how much better he would have handled this conversation.
Who wouldn't love a man like that? A man who had given up trying to wash his hands but who traded stocks on the internet in an effective way? He sometimes felt like something reproduced asexually, perhaps directly out of some stranger's testicle, just dangled to the ground by a groin shockwave.
"You're messing with me!" Chet said, in a pathetic, imploring voice, as if this had been the longstanding problem between them.
He knew he had been misunderstood in some fundamental way; this was more or less always the case. But he had not meant to hurt the male teenager. Finally, he saw a way out: "I'm very sorry, Chet, but I will certainly tell her you called."
One day he over-heard his wife talking to someone on the phone in the kitchen.
"People dream about my cheesecake," she said into the phone.
He grabbed the spool of string from the kitchen drawer crammed with such things. There was something he needed to tie up, somewhere in the house.
"You're not listening to me," his wife said into the phone. "No you're not... I said I'm talking! I won't talk until I know you're listening. Are you listening?...Are you?"
Why had he married her? She could be crazy sometimes!
He occasionally called his old therapist and left messages on her voice mail. "It's happened," he would say, the cordless phone dropped into an athletic sock to disguise his voice. "I've become who I thought I might be when I set out all those years ago."
He did this repeatedly until she called him back one day and left her own message in her inimitable high-pitched voice. "Stop it," she said.
It was a peculiarity of his personality that whatever he was called out about he stopped doing almost instantly. It was one of the reasons he didn't always regret having little contact with other people—because as soon as someone noted what he was doing, he was nearly incapable of doing it. This did not apply to trading securities because the stock market was all electronic, and the other computers that recorded his trades did not have what he would have called consciousness, so even though these computers held records of what he did, they did not really "see" it. He savored this. He followed twenty or so stocks on his computer, and what he learned through his computer told him what to do with them. He bought, sold, or held, depending, and by the end of the year he had a lot more money somehow. Trading stocks was the most stable and positive fact of his life.
When he was flush with cash, he had purchased from an antique dealer an ice axe used by Sir Edmund Hilary to climb Mount Everest in 1953. It cost $3000 and came in a wooden box with a glass panel, so the axe could be seen. He thought of it as a tool that he used psychologically, in his stock trading and in his daily life, just by looking at it.
Once while he and his wife were watching a digital video his wife had taken of their son Edward's fifth birthday party, he appeared in the left edge of the frame, viewed from behind. At first, he didn't recognize himself, but then his wife said, "Look at you."
"Look at you," his wife repeated.
Why was she saying that? Was it the way his long neck held up his head like a waiter's wrist beneath a platter?
"What?" he asked again. But she never explained.
During the meat of the day, his real children were either in school or cared for by others. His wife had made the arrangements, though he was required to drive one way.
He continued making money with his computer for another three years, until it became obvious that his wife was having an affair. She had apologized for not telling him she had a separate son, but then she had taken up with a chef, of all people, who cooked fish in a bag, she said, and who made bread just so, she said—she held back nothing when she wanted to hurt him—and had a touch in bed that would curdle milk into cheese upon contact.
"Oh, really?" he asked helplessly.
By this time, the tops of the drapes were caked with dust. No one had ever reached up there with the vacuum attachment, and no one had ever made the effort to remove the drapes and throw them into the wash machine. The implication was: he was home all day, why didn't he do it? He did many other things around the house, including dinner and laundry and small repairs, but he did not do that.
"And is that good or bad?" he said. "That sort of curdling touch, I mean?"
No answer. Which made him have to start over, stammering: "And when I saw you through that window, selling window coverings, are you saying that that wasn't really you, after all?"
"That reminds me," she said. "You never told me who you thought I was! When we met. Have you ever thought about that? Have you!"
"Yes, I have," he said. "But I'm not going to tell you what I thought!" He felt horrible. After all these years, his resolve to never stoop to her level had been broken.
"Well, then, the joke's on you, mister," she said. "It was never me. Don't you see? It was never me at all! You've been in love with yourself this whole time! Every window you've ever looked in, you've only seen yourself!"
"That's never been true!" he said. In fact, he hated himself. He wished their entire relationship had been filmed, as evidence. "Many of the things you've said have been wrong!" he added, feeling wild and cruel, and it was like, at long last, dropping an atomic bomb from an airplane.
"There are things I want you to see about yourself," she responded calmly. "And I'm not a bit sorry."
He was so angry, his mind tripped over itself, trying to formulate a response. He should have never let her go into his house ahead of him, no matter how exciting it had seemed; it was like being invaded by a funhouse mirror. He wanted to smash the mirror with his axe, but now that it had gotten inside of him, how could he do so without hurting himself?
He stared into her eyes, wild with anger, but he stopped himself from saying more.
"Look at you," she said.
He gave himself over to thinking horrible things about her. He had never stooped so low. He struck at her in himself, again and again.
And still no one died! And still his hands hovered over the driest of sinks!
About the story: Just an accident waiting to happen.