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From the author: Steven struggles to help Carl take care of himself, and taps into talents no one expected.
Steven arrived at Carl's apartment the next day, a little after ten, carrying a box of art supplies. He would be late to the office. Would they notice? Would he care if they did?
Carl sat in the living room in his chair. The television was off. The distant horns of the ferries and a whisper of cab traffic leaked through the sealed windows. Steven ignored questions about how long Carl might have been there, what he'd done since the day before. Steven tried to swallow the image of Carl staring at a blank screen. He dropped the box on the floor. Packs of cellophane wrapped canvas covered boards stood to one side. A rubber-banded handful of brushes. Palette knife. Nine tubes of acrylic paint including extra large tubes of black and white. Pencils, charcoal, watercolor, sketchpad. He looked into the box and saw gaps in his preparations: drop clothes, rags, cleaning supplies of any kind. He sighed and reminded himself that Carl would not think anything missing even if handed an empty box. Though none were visible he saw his father's fingerprints on everything.
Carl stood as if coming to a kind of attention. Steven pointed into the box. "I thought you might enjoy painting."
Carl looked in. He wore a white dress shirt and black dress pants.The mining company had purchased all this. They’d dressed him like a doll. They’d hung things on him like he was a series of hooks. Even his name had been a kind of joke, a pun on his original designation which was just a series of letters, some of which included “CRL.” Steven made a mental note to buy him more clothes. It was too late to change any of the other decorations they’d hung on the man.
Steven lifted a beginners guide from the box. "You can read this," he said. "It might be fun." He made a mental note to stop saying that things might be fun. Fun was beside the point. He opened the book and discovered his father had made notes inside. The pencil marks were faded, the pages yellowed at the edges. How old was this book? He held it out. "Teach yourself." He said this like the command it was.
Carl took the book and examined the cover. He opened it and read the title page. As he turned to the next page Steven walked to the door.
"You'll find everything you need in the box. I'll check on you tomorrow." He watched Carl inspect the box. There's no reason I need to return, he thought. My job doesn't demand it.
On his way to work the next morning, Steven stopped by Carl's apartment. He let himself in, finding the door still unlocked. He would have to tell Carl to lock his door every night. He found Carl slumped in a chair before the easel. A brush hung from his hands, paint covered the front of his shirt and the book. Carl's head hung to one side. The tubes empty, the boards covered with horizontal lines, all the color layered into widely gapped bands. Bands from edge to edge. Canvases lined the apartment's dining room floor. Other than the canvases the large room was empty.
Steven shook Carl awake. "What are you doing out here?"
Carl looked up with his pale eyes. Red lines at the edges, dark circles beneath. "I'm painting." He immediately leaned forward and pressed the brush against the canvas on the easel. When he found the brush dried and unusable he stood as if it were on fire. He looked to the window, eyes toward the sky.
"It's daytime," Carl said.
Steven took the brush from his hand. "Did you eat?" At his feet lay the how-to-paint book. It was open to a chapter titled, "Art From the Everyday."
Steven took Carl out. He still wore the white shirt. His jacket hid most of the paint on the sleeves. Bits of yellow and red flashed at his wrists. Paint covered his hands, caked under his fingernails and between his fingers.
They went to a diner. Steven bought Carl breakfast. "You need to remember where this diner is. You can come here to eat." Carl nodded, but Steven chose to reframe his suggestion. "You will come here to eat," he ordered. Carl forked scrambled eggs into his mouth. On the right side of his neck, just above the collarbone Steven could see the scar where a feeding tube had been removed and the skin sewed shut. He remembered seeing footage of Carl being taught to chew and swallow food.
Steven called in sick to work.
Carl finished eating. They took the ferry downtown to an art supply store. Near a university, it was filled with students. Steven pulled three times as much paint and canvas as he had given Carl before. He used Carl's credit card to purchase these and said, "Use that card to pay for things. Only buy what you need that day. Don't buy things for people. If anyone tells you to buy them something, you tell me."
Steven turned back to the woman behind the counter. Her eyes kept snapping back to Carl who returned her gaze without expression, without blinking. Her nametag said, "Amy."
"Is he?" She waved in the air, circles that said the one from the news, the one from space, the one that saved those kids, the one.
"Yes, he is." Steven said. "Could you tell me where to find a good book on art practice and theory? Something not too advanced. Practical."
She half-laughed, nodded, still watching Carl. Carl watching her.
She stepped away from the counter and Carl and Steven watched her disappear down an aisle. When she returned she held up a thick volume called "Art in Practice." She held it up for Steven but he didn't touch it. Could barely look at it.
"That's fine," he said. "We'll take it."
Steven took Carl to a cellphone shop down the dock. Steven picked out a phone with an easy-to-program alarm. He bought a basic plan on Carl's credit. Carl stood near the window display, trying to use the comically oversized display phone that bore a striking resemblance to the mining station computer terminal. By the time the phone was activated and paid for it was lunchtime. They returned to the diner and Carl started to order a scrambled egg.
"No," Steven said. "Each time you come you move to the next item. When you reach the last item on the menu you go back to the beginning. Skip appetizers and side orders. Am I clear?"
The waitress approached with a smile. "Back again?"
Carl said, "Pancakes." They were the first item on the menu.
In his apartment Carl read the art book while Steven charged the phone and set alarms. He labeled each one. Wake up. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Sleep. These were obvious. He imagined others. Paint. Read. Go for a walk. And then, Return Home. Steven called Carl over to the phone and showed him how the alarms would work, how to turn them off.
"When this one goes off, you get up. Get up, get showered. Wash your body once with soap. Get out. Dry yourself off and get dressed. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Carl looked at the phone with interest. Steven demonstrated what the alarm sounded like, how to ensure each was on.
Carl held up the phone. He scrolled through the list of alarms.
"When meal alarms go off return to the diner where we ate. Order a meal appropriate for that time of day. The waitress will help you." Steven made a mental note to talk to the manager of the diner. He should explain who Carl is, why he needed help. How much did he need to think of to live Carl's life safely, completely? "After you have eaten, pay and then come home. Do your painting."
"My paintings can be done after breakfast."
"Yes. Or you can read. Or you can watch television."
He returned to the living room. The television had never been turned on. Steven would have to get it linked to the Internet, make sure that it had access to programs Carl liked. "What sort of programs did you watch?"
Depression settled across his shoulders. "When your sleep alarm goes off, brush your teeth, turn off all the lights, get dressed for bed and go to sleep." He heard the echo of Carl's voice from the empty room around them. Life would be in the silences.
"And lock your door."
"Before you go to bed."
Carl scrolled through the alarms. Up and down the list. He stopped and stared into the corner, perplexed. "When will I see you?"
"There's no time for communication with you on my schedule."
Steven gently took the phone back. He made a new alarm, for four in the afternoon. Then he added his phone number to the contacts and showed Carl how to find it. He could have set a similar schedule with his father. "At four, when this alarm goes off." He stopped. His heart was like an animal trapped under a rock. "When this goes off, you call me, press here and it will call me, and then we'll talk. If I don't answer leave a message and I'll call you back."
"What will I tell you?"
"You'll tell me about your day."
Carl looked at the phone. He returned to the list of alarms. "My day of these events you've entered for me."
Carl nodded. "I understand." He scrolled to the final entry: Sleep. "This ends my day."
Carl looked at him. Steven realized that if capitulation had a color it was the color of Carl's eyes. "I understand."
Steven checked the time. The alarms were all on. One would go off soon telling Carl it was time for a walk. For some reason he wanted to be gone when it did. The animal in his chest was struggling against the stone.
"I'm going to go now. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"You mean today. At four."
"Yes, at four."
"When I call you."
"Yes," Steven said. This was no longer his job.
Steven returned to the apartment at nine the next morning. He found it empty. The bed had been slept in. The shower walls were wet. Carl was at breakfast, which had been set for 8:30. Steven sat and waited for Carl to return.
The art theory books lay on the floor. Carl had been reading them. Their bindings were cracked and the corners were already dog-eared on a hundred pages. A painting from the day before sat on the easel, done after Steven left. Several more sat on the floor, propped against the wall. They were landscapes, though not of anything he had ever seen. They were gray black rock fields under a night sky. Shadows were bold. Light was shocking white. One lone star sat in the sky, low on the horizon. The landscapes were full of depth. The one on the easel left Steven hypnotized as he stared at it. One lone boulder sat slightly off-center, casting a grave-like shadow.
As Steven considered the piece, Carl returned and walked straight to the sink. There was a green stain on his shirt below the pocket. Clothing stores. Steven would have to take him. And laundry. And a cleaning service. Weekly visits. Steven emailed himself a reminder.
Carl didn't acknowledge Steven for several minutes. Instead, he cleaned a brush in the sink and then returned with it to his easel, his palette. He consulted the color wheel in the art book and began to squeeze yellow and a pinkish red onto the palette. A touch of black. He swirled it to a nearly gray sludge. Gray but not gray. Again he consulted the book. He read for a minute, then picked up his palette knife. He used it against the canvas and suddenly the half-finished painting lost its amateur edge. He watched Carl add a layer to the painting on the easel, and then the same to two more.
Carl's lunch alarm surprised Steven. He had been entranced.
Carl turned off the alarm and returned to the kitchen, cleaned his brush, his knife, his palette. He washed his hands. His shirt was a multicolor mess. Carl splashed water across the counter as he cleaned. The front of his shirt and down the front of his pants was wet. The water continued to spray. Carl was thorough in his cleaning. When at last he was done he turned off the water and walked back through the living room, past Steven. He exited without a word.
In the room behind Steven, painted shapes of barren rocks dried. Layer upon layer. The knife technique made the terrain seem pebbled, deep, real. Steven wondered if his father used the technique before, struggled with it, cursed it, failed at it. Steven's shoes echoed in the empty room as he watched paint dry and wondered about his father's attempts and failures.
… … …
After dinner that evening Steven took the ferry into Carl's neighborhood. The sun was an orange haze over New Jersey that leaked between the buildings and into the boat as it made its way along Eighth Avenue. Without meaning to, Steven picked out Carl's building when it was in sight. He counted the floors from water level to Carl's floor. Sunlight painted the side of the building at that height, all the upper windows afire; orange and opaque. Carl might not be home. The entire building might be empty. The nearly empty ferry splashed water against the sidewalk dock and Steven disembarked, gull laughter overhead. Was this part of the city always this empty? Steven couldn't recall the last time he'd been in a crowd. The last time he'd felt set upon by others' bodies, voices, breaths.
He should call first. He wouldn't call. He checked his phone for the time. Carl would be home. His "return home" alarm would have gone off thirty minutes ago. Steven listened to drifting garbage knock against one of the walkway pylons, such a rhythm it might be footsteps, even right behind him, but when he turned he was alone, the knocking continuing as if whatever invisible spirit that followed Steven had given up on its pursuit, given up on Steven, walked past him and on into the shadows that hunkered between the buildings ahead and for as far as he could see.
Steven decided to take Carl somewhere that would remind him of home. He rode the elevator, trying to imagine where that might be, cellphone out, browser open, GPS mapping the edges of the city. Manhattan and the boroughs were soggy and full, but west, they might wander, ask for a way to a barren ruin.
Carl didn't ask where they were headed. Steven thought he might, hoped he might, swallowed his pity and sorrow when Carl didn't. The sun was nearly set, orange tones giving way to bruise-blue. Beneath them the clicking Steven had heard continued, seemed louder, and the dock lights mimicked the pattern, lowing softly with each tap, as if the clicking was connected, as if everything was and had been and would remain so, no matter our efforts and wishes and cutting.
They took the ferry to the Union Square flotilla. From there it was a fast hydrofoil across Hudson River Bay, only twelve minutes from launch to docking at the Elizabeth pier. Halfway across one of Carl's alarms rang and he turned it off, eyes on the window, then the boat's doorway, exiting now a priority.
Steven tapped his arm. "Don't worry. We'll get something to eat when we dock."
"I understand." Facing forward again, Carl watched the back of the seat ahead of him. To his right lay a view of the northern edges of Hudson River Bay, the ruins of the George Washington Bridge winking with lights of cabs floating above it like oversized water insects. This view he ignored.
They docked a little before nine PM. Commuters climbed stairs to the exits, met family or found landcars and taxis, said goodbyes to commute acquaintances. Steven asked a middle aged man in a new suit and well worn shoes if there was a diner or restaurant, where they might catch a cab. The answer to both was a five minute walk along a sidewalkless street. They didn't speak, but the sounds of tree frogs and cicadas was enough conversation.
By the time they had sandwiches and found a cabbie with enough compassion or interest or lack of a personal life to allow them to drive aimlessly in search of a quarry or landfill it was after 10. The cabbie was from South Orange, young but already three times a father. Steven told him who Carl was, claimed he was homesick, and described his need for a place that might look open, barren, rocky. The moon was up and close enough to full to trick anyone without an almanac, and its light painted the man's dark skin blue-white in places, darkened his eyes to sockets. Suddenly his mouth broke wide into a skull's grin and Steven stopped mid-word.
"Oh yes," he grinned. "I know a place. Get in."
They drove with the cabbie regaling them with details of the area, the development efforts, the Chinese-manufactured pre-fab high-rises that went up practically overnight, pointing out his open window at things invisible in the dark: Homes, schools, the names of his daughters, his hopes for them, his need for them to be safe and happy and better-off, his life and his past and his future.
At last, the car stopped, headlights against a blue-painted plywood barricade and a half-dozing Steven remembered in a flash driving to the Jersey shore, his father at the wheel, mother talking beside him, Steven—tall enough to have to crane his neck to see out the window—asleep in the backseat, hearing himself breathe and feeling his body jolt in sleep until his father would reach back and touch a knee, apologetic, and shout-whisper, "We're here," and then Steven would rub eyes and lean forward and there it was, the wide ocean, and the salt air and the fence between the sand and the parking lot and Steven knew time an illusion.
Now the construction site barricade sat before him, and despite being the prime mover of this exodus he for an instant had less than an idea of what they are doing or why they were there. He remembered after the cabbie spun around and smiled and shout-whispered, "I've brought you to the rubble."
All three climbed from the car, the cabbie first, rushing to the fence, peering between two boards. "This is a new high-rise. No building yet. Just a clearing." He kept talking. Steven and Carl walked around the cab, looked at dark shadows puffed between construction vehicles, flats of equipment, port-a-johns. It was a kind of field, the lights of nearby high-rises visible above the black silhouette of nearby trees.
"This isn't..." Steven felt Carl's eyes on him, felt himself being pulled into the dewy grass beneath him. This was a mistake, he thought. Not just this trip, but every attempt to leave Carl alone in the city, burdening him with freedom, bringing him to Earth. Every decision had been made in the name of public relations and marketing and consumers. Carl had saved children, and been brought to Earth as a reward. The result was that the only one who had acted with any kind of selfless grace was the man with white in white eyes, standing in a field in New Jersey in the middle of a warm summer night with no purpose.
"Maybe we can just head back?" Steven asked the driver.
"No, the other side." The driver's figure floated between him and the wall. "Hold on." He climbed back into the car, maneuvered it too fast yet precisely so that its right side was inches from the fence. Hopping out he waved and called in the dark. "Here," he said as he climbed onto the hood and then roof of his car. "Up here," called his voice from above. Steven could see him against the sky, partly lit in blue by headlights reflecting off the wall.
"Oh, come up. It's my car. No problem. Come up and see. As barren as the moon. Come see."
Steven climbed up and once he was away from the headlights and looking over the fence he saw what he'd hoped to find but not known where to look. As many as six cleared acres lay on the far side, stripped not only of grass and weeds, bushes and trees, but topsoil down to around four feet. To the north end of the lot sat a line of backhoes ready for more daylight digging but now silent and waiting, nothing but oppressively big reminders that man was impatient with gravity's landscaping. The rest of the field was flat and clotted with skull sized rocks and clumps of mud and dirt. Under the night sky it all looked like a raw wound in the earth bandaged white with moonlight. Steven looked over it a minute, then looked down at Carl, who stood silently beside the car.
"Come up here, Carl."
The driver made his own invitation and climbed down to make room. Carl took his place and Steven pointed out across the dig site.
"Look at that," was all he said, and Carl did as he was told.
Steven climbed down and stood beside the driver as Carl stood above them, silent, absorbed in his study of the other side of the fence.
The driver laughed. "Like you asked for, right?"
"Yes, thank you." He looked up at Carl a moment but was overcome by needing conversation. "What is your name?"
"Thank you, Inder."
It should have meant more than that, Steven thought. It should take Carl thanking him, it should take this place reminding him of home, of it repairing, even just a little, too little but enough, the hole Carl had in him, must have in him. It should do this, and Steven wanted to ask if it did, wanted to ask if there was just a little bit of home in that view but instead he bit down hard on the question and bit it again because what if, worse than a no, the answer was no answer, what if the man standing atop the car didn't see home or anything but a worksite, what if he stood there mutely looking only because he'd been told to do so?
Steven stood on the ground and looked up at Carl, the edges of him lined with moonlight, and he thought of himself standing at the fence of the beach, his parents unloading the car behind him, and the rush of wind spilling over the sand, bringing heat and salt and air that hadn't been used in a million million days.