She kissed me on the cheek and rolled over again. I tried to figure out exactly at what point I had lost control of the discussion. She said, “Now, I really don’t have a place to stay here in town . . .”
“Well . . .”
“But John said I could stay with him until I found something.”
“Over his dead body.”
She laughed, said, “He told me to tell you that. He also wanted me to tell you he has a king-sized bed so there’s plenty of room for me. And that he sleeps naked.”
“You can stay here. For now. But Amy, you’re not living with me. You understand me? I mean, you’ll be living here, but not ‘they’ll be getting married next’ living here. It’ll be ‘she doesn’t have a place to stay’ living here. Okay?”
“Sure. Everything’s worked out then. You know, it’s good to be back. One thing I can say about [Undisclosed], you know it’s gonna be more interesting than Utah.”
NOTHING INTERESTING HAPPENED for the next four months.
ON A BLISTERING late-August day, John and I hauled Amy and about a dozen cardboard boxes of her possessions down an exit ramp, my Bronco passing a green HOME OF [OMITTED] UNIVERSITY sign.
The school was a little more than two hours from Undisclosed, which I had figured was a safe distance should a pit open under the town and swallow it into Hell once and for all, and yet close enough that Amy would agree to go. It had taken about twelve arguments and one crying fit to come to that compromise. In the end I convinced her that she would have to get some kind of education and actually continue her life at some point. See the world, broaden her horizons. Get off my couch and stop typing on that damned laptop. She was a sheltered kid. She had a shitty time in high school and had barely been outside city limits since. You don’t realize how terrifying the world can be for someone like that, someone who would rather stay in a familiar hole than an unfamiliar mansion.
Which is why you haven’t exactly jumped at the chance to move away, either . . .
But we finally looked into the college thing, did the research and found that her SAT scores were actually good enough to get her a partial scholarship. That and some future-crippling student loans were all it took to get her in the door. There was lots of paperwork and Amy turned into a nervous wreck for the last three weeks before move-in day at the dorms. But here we were.
And that, I thought, will be that. The Utah thing was poorly thought out but now she’ll have classes and meet fascinating people and she’ll love it. She’ll call every day, then every week. And then she’ll mention a guy. A friend, she’ll say. And then she’ll call once a month, only visit twice a semester and then you’ll get the call and she’ll say she’s sorry, she’s met someone, he’s an English major and plays lacrosse or some shit. And she will have grown up. She’ll get some job right out of school in some other city and she’ll never, ever come back here.
And that’s how it should be. She’ll be out of my orbit, out of my sphere of concern, a poor target for anyone or anything that wants to get to me. She’ll be safe. This time.
When a man plans, a woman laughs.
We unloaded boxes and waded through the lobby of the dorms. We wound up waiting in line for elevators along with crowds of skinny girls and well-dressed parents, chubby boys that looked far too young for college and a surprising number of Asian kids. Some guy came along and was handing out packets of forms, dorm rules and shit, and struck up a conversation with Amy. She got along so easily with people, so laid back. She had a light jacket draped over her arm on this ninety-four-degree day. It concealed her missing hand perfectly. They talked and she giggled and he moved on, handing out his packets.
I said, “That guy seemed nice.”
She said, “Uh-huh.”
“Did you get his name?”
“James or Jack or something.”
I said, “Well-dressed guy. Probably gonna be a doctor or something.”
John looked at me, then at Amy then at me again. He said, “He, uh, had a nice ass, too.”
Amy turned, rolled her eyes and we piled into the elevator. We rode up and moved her stuff to her tiny dorm room. And so, for the second time, I said good-bye to Amy and for the second time was sure it was going to be forever. We hugged and I wished her good fortune about a dozen times. Finally I broke off and headed for the hall, sure that I had succeeded, thinking that if you love someone you do have to set them free and that I had done just that, for the good of all. And juuuuust as I was almost out of grabbing range Amy snagged the back of my shirt with a fist and turned me around. She said, “Uh, thank you for helping me move.”
“You said that already. No problem.” She looked like she had something else to say. Quite a bit else, in fact.
John said, “Yeah, it’s not a big deal for me to lift heavy objects. I’m sort of used to it, if you know what I mean.”
I held up a hand to silence him. “John—”
“Of course I’m talking about my penis.”
I said to Amy, “Ignore him. His penis is just like everybody else’s.”
Amy said, “I was just gonna ask you if—”
“You’ve never seen my penis!” bellowed John. “I’d show it right now, to everybody here. If we had time.”
I turned on him. “If we had time? What?”
“Because, well, if you want to look at my penis, you’d better have a whole afternoon, buddy! You best have five or six hours to take it all in, lest its majesty escape you!”
Before I could stop her, Amy said, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It would make sense if you could see it!” shouted John, plainly agitated. “It would be making loooooong sense, honey!”
“John, just calm down, okay.” I gestured down the hall. “Go wait by the elevator.”
He didn’t move. From behind me, I heard Amy say, “Do you want to get engaged?”
And there it was. I had a sinking feeling, visualized a moth flapping toward a blowtorch. I tried to think of the best, most soothing way to turn her down and said, “Sure.”
John looked at his watch. “Well, congratulations. Now we gotta roll. If we leave now there’ll still be enough light to get in some basketball.”
THE DAY WAS so hot it stank. Asphalt baked under our shoes, bodies rustled against one another dancing to the irregular PAP PAP PAP beat of a basketball smacking the pavement. I backed toward the hoop, about where the free-throw line would be if we had played on an actual court rather than this giant cracked piece of playground sandpaper. I spun, jumped, threw up a shot that was doomed the moment it left my fingers.
John snatched the rebound, spun, jumped, slammed. He pumped his fist in victory. “Ring it up! Two hundred seventy-four to one thirty-seven!” In John’s game, each shot is worth one hundred and thirty-seven points. “If I had a dime for every basket I made today, you’d still suck!”
I tracked down the loose ball and handed it to John. In this game, like life, scoring means you get to keep the ball. He dribbled twice, glanced up over my shoulder, and froze. I saw the expression on his face and turned. John squinted and asked, “Was that there before?”
It was a black sphere, floating just over the weeds at courtside. It was gleaming and about three feet wide, looking like a giant hovering eight ball. John strode over to it and I heard him say, “You can sort of see into it. I think I see people.”
He bent over and picked up a broken chunk of concrete. He lobbed it at the sphere, which swallowed it noiselessly. John looked over his shoulder at me and said, “Hole to another dimension, I bet. Wanna go through?”
“After this point.”
John got the ball and dribbled behind the cracks and bundles of weeds we called the three-point line. I knew from the look in his eyes that he was going to take the shot. As soon as the ball left his hands I was bounding toward the rim, that subconscious gauge in the back of my mind already telling me it was a miss off the backboard. It clanged, I leapt. I scooped the rebound from the air one-handed and before John could recover into defense I turned and hooked a shot that ripped prettily through the net.
“Like a drop in the bucket, baby,” I said. “Splash!”
“Damn.” John said, hands on his hips, chest heaving. “Your game be chubby today.” He said this in such a way so that “chubby” rhymed with “today.”
“Tied at two seventy-four, Monster Dave.”
He retrieved the ball from the grass, then heaved a chest pass at me that missed badly. I turned to watch the ball go and, sure enough, saw it hit the black sphere and disappear just like the piece of concrete had.
“Whoops,” said John. “I tossed our ball into another universe.”
“You wanna go home?”
“Yeah, just let me get my ball.”
He walked over to the sphere and peered into it. He lifted a leg and stuck it through, then ducked in and soon it was just his left leg sticking out of this floating ball. He pulled it through and he was gone. I sighed, looked at my watch and wandered toward the spherical portal. I knew he wasn’t coming back until I at least poked my head through, so I bent over and pushed my way in.
The air on the other side was at least thirty degrees cooler. I stepped out, realizing as I did that I was emerging from a white sphere on this side, brilliant as sunlit snow. I stepped out onto a basketball court that itself was not terribly different than the one we had left. But the world was changed nonetheless. The sun was gone. The overcast sky was an unnatural ceiling of tar-flavored cotton candy and the air had a vague farty smell.
I scanned the landscape and saw other small differences. The park in Undisclosed had been in a polished neighborhood, Victorian houses and carpet lawns. Here the houses looked empty and forgotten, windows smashed, weeds overgrowing, rusting mailboxes. The yellowing white house nearest to us had a single nonsense word spray-painted across the front:
A dry wind blew, bringing with it that vague sulfur stench once again. I saw John standing nearby, looking up at the rim of one of the half dozen goals that bordered the court.