A warm spell had been rustling the forest of Mondaumen County since mid-March so that by April everything was covered in yellow-green pollen. It settled in a thin, powdery layer on sun-bleached roads and billowed in the wake of Harry Gordon’s car. He thought of the early spring as nature’s premature ejaculation and insisted allergies were the cause of his stuffy nose and waterlogged eyes. Certainly not the divorce papers he was served this morning, or the restraining order, and definitely not the lingering memory of his night with the blonde, vaguely Hispanic woman.
Later he would admit that tears obscured his vision and sorrow squeezed his eyes to coin slots in a stinging, nasally swelling of emotion that had perhaps been building through the past ten years of a seldom happy marriage. That’s why he didn’t see the oncoming minivan.
Did he drift into the other lane or did the minivan driver drift into his? Dizzying panic coursed through him, and he felt the same rolling of the world usually reserved for those infrequent occasions when he had too much to drink.
A jarring screech of metal and exploding glass, the diamond-like fragments of which bounced off his tie and armpit-stained blue shirt.
The shirt had been a gift that Jess special-ordered from a designer sales catalog because it promised breathable cotton. Harry had a good laugh at the bar with his friends over the concept. Dead plant fibers that could breathe? Or fabric that allowed you to breathe, as if most shirts prevented breathing? The shirt made him itch and sweat, but he loved it because she thought of him.
It was quarter past two when the collision occurred. It happened on Rural Route 12, which wound through forested country. It was Thursday. It was two days and eight hours since he’d slept with the blonde, vaguely Hispanic woman. Logic should have told him his wife could never have summoned a lawyer, drafted paperwork, and filed with the Mondaumen County clerk even if she’d been in the hotel room watching them. But logic fled him and he was not himself.
Most people are in love when they marry, and sometimes there is even a raw and animalistic passion manifest as a groping immediacy. Harry Gordon felt this way about Jess, even years after the wedding. The tiniest sight of her flesh, from a low neckline to a raised shirt revealing her midriff, drove him insane with lust. Time dulled their intimacy into a cliché; she recoiled at his touch, feigning headache or nausea to the point where he worried after her health. He joked about buying aspirin-lubricated condoms. She didn’t laugh.
The bumper had twisted beneath the car’s frame; its sharp edges dug into his tire, unwinding it in a black ribbon that snaked along the road, gathering the pollen as it went. The steering wheel bucked and the car slid into the gulley, coming to rest against the carcass of a long-dead deer that had festered by the roadside since early winter. The engine stalled. Harry threw the door open and tried to get out, but the seatbelt snapped him back into place.
He unbuckled and spilled out onto the road. The tarmac was hot, the air was humid with a distinct fragrant mossy odor (forest) which mingled with rotting meat (dead deer) and throat-scratching flowers (pollen).
The minivan rolled to a stop three football-fields away. Maybe less—Harry was never good at estimating distances. He watched the brake lights scowl red; the white of the reverse lights came to life, the Ford emblem on the rear door raced toward him. He didn’t notice the driver hanging out of the window, bloated body craned back to see where he was going, unshaven face with matted, greasy hair as if he’d just woken from a long night at a seedy bar. The minivan screeched to a stop a few feet from him.
When the driver leapt out, he issued a litany of slurred curses that Harry had trouble deciphering. Something about a sombitch bassard and a cosuckking moth fuh. The man smelled like cotton candy.
Harry asked, “Are you all right?”
The minivan had a long, jagged scar along the side. There were flecks of blue paint from Harry’s car.
“Who, why,” the man said. He was elderly and balding in an odd way. The top of his head produced a thicket of dull, gray hair, but the back and sides were a sparse desert of dried skin and liver spots. The man swayed like a deer on an icy road.
Harry wondered if he would look as unkempt in his old age. He said, “How much did you drink?”
The man gazed at him for nearly a minute before decrying, “I’mma kick youass.” He ducked back into the gaping driver-side door of the minivan and emerged with a weapon. He held it in a tight fist above his head, ready to swing.
Harry screamed, then laughed when his tear-stained eyes focused. The man was coming at him with a disposable razor. The cheap kind sold in packages of a dozen at a drugstore.
The man swung and Harry stepped out of the way. “Hey! Stop!”
“Sombitch.” The man swiped in wide, awkward arcs that threatened to send him off balance. Harry moved slowly back across the road.
He was laughing and thought of what he’d say to Jess when he got home. You’ll never believe what happened to me. A drunk smelling like candy hit the car and chased me with a disposable razor.
Then he remembered the divorce papers, the restraining order, and the thick envelope of legal documents.
He was in the middle of a presentation when it happened. Jess was gifted with the capacity to find the most inopportune moments to spring dramatic resolutions. He was standing at the front of the conference room, describing a composite chemical compound that could coat anodized aluminum. His audience, mostly made up of executives from Glover-Driscol Manufacturing, was enthralled in equal parts by Harry’s speech and by his British pronunciation of aluminum. Allumineeum. Years of chemistry taught him precision.
Harry knew he was making a good case. He knew the Glover-Driscol executives would license the compound and that the next generation of cell phones and tablet computers would be coated with it. Scratch-resistance and lightweight would become the norm for consumer electronics. The world would remember him the way they remembered the inventor of Velcro and air-conditioning, except that he didn’t know who invented Velcro or air-conditioning.
But a police officer barged into the conference room. The man was bottom-heavy, as if he were an animated, waddling child’s toy. Harry resisted the urge to push the police officer over to see if he’d spring back up. Self-righting justice. The wobbly officer identified Harry and handed over a padded envelope.
Harry smiled and nodded. He thought it was a joke, since his birthday had just passed. He had a fleeting notion that the padded envelope contained box seats to a game. Baseball or basketball or hockey. It wouldn’t matter because he could never follow the scores or the teams.
The board members of Glover-Driscol Manufacturing had looked confused. Harry’s boss had looked angry. Harry opened the envelope, read the first few pages, and promptly left, citing allergies as the unfortunate cause of his teary-eyed exit.
And now the drunk man was mumbling, chasing Harry across the road with a disposable razor.
“Hey now,” Harry said, holding out a hand, backing slowly away, dodging the razor.
The man lost his balance and fell into Harry, who had backed into a guardrail (made of aluminum) and tumbled backward, head-first into a ditch. The man somersaulted over the guardrail and into Harry.
The disposable razor nicked Harry’s neck. The bulk of the man pinned him down, shoving the breath out of his lungs. Jagged rocks spiked into Harry’s back. Everything hurt and ached and stung.
The stench churned his stomach. Moss and dirt and grass mingled with a nauseatingly sweet smell that permeated the air around the man. Stale honey and cotton candy and pancake syrup. Harry couldn’t breathe. He tried to shove, but the man was an immense and unconscious slab.
Harry wasn’t sure if he should cry or laugh. He was going to die pinned beneath a fat, drunk man who smelled like a candy store.
When they were married, Harry and Jess promised to be faithful. Everyone they knew had slept around, all of their friends; even their own parents had stabbed and abused trust to satisfy mechanical and animal urge. Harry swore he would never do that. Cheaters say they’re sorry not because they feel guilt or regret, only because they’re sorry they got caught. He sat with Jess on a sunset beach during their honeymoon, toasting to a new life, both swearing they would talk it out if it ever came to that.
But when it came time to talk, neither could find the words. He didn’t think Jess was sleeping around, though she wasn’t sleeping with him. She claimed to be bored by the convention of life, the tedium of day jobs and evenings of sitcoms punctuated by weekend cookouts with family neither of them cared to see. All of their friends had kids; all of their friends’ lives became an endless sequence of soccer games and dance recitals. Jess hated being a dental assistant, hated the monotony of scraping plaque from middle-class teeth. She said it was like scraping away her life, digging into the soft tissue of a future she no longer wanted. She quit and joined the fire department. She became an emergency medical technician and rode ambulances. She rushed into fires and tore through buildings with an axe. Harry’s friends joked that Jess was more a man than he was. Harry didn’t laugh.
For years he bottled his frustrations and feared his own urges. And then he met the vaguely Hispanic blonde woman. It was a cliché. Man on a business trip, beautiful woman at a bar.
“I never do this,” she had said and bought him a drink. Then another. Soon he was drunk while she confessed her husband had left and she needed a man. Harry had gone to his room, intent on passing out. But the vaguely Hispanic blonde woman followed, and he’d found himself unable to push her away. He woke the next morning with his pants on the floor and a lipstick-scrawled note on the bathroom mirror.
He should’ve gone to the gym more frequently, maybe then he’d have the strength to push the fat, drunk man off of him. As it was, he could barely breathe. He heard cars passing on the road above, heard the sound of squealing brakes as someone stopped, heard voices talking. He couldn’t yell for help. He turned his head and gagged from the sweet stench.
When he was fifteen, he lost his virginity. His parents were having one of their summer parties filled with all the adults in the neighborhood. Pot and beer were passed around, and Harry was told to stay in his room, which was fine because he had Nintendo and adults were boring. He would always end up blowing out the candles and extinguishing the grill to keep the house from burning down because all of the adults would pass out.
Mrs. Croft was a widow with two boys half Harry’s age. Her husband died in a warehouse accident when an aluminum shelf collapsed, crushing him beneath pallets of protein bars. Mrs. Croft said it was proof that health food kills. She wandered away from the party, found Harry in his bedroom. She said she wanted to make a man out of him. He was too stunned to do anything but watch as she struggled with the buttons on her blouse.
He was fifteen and hadn’t yet developed willpower. He’d spent his early teenage years sneaking his mother’s Victoria’s Secret catalogues into the bathroom, stealing his father’s Playboys, watching late-night skinemax softcore porn, awkwardly groping Holly McDermott’s underdeveloped breasts after the fall social, and once watching Kyle Overby’s brother stick his head between his girlfriend’s legs while she balanced on the tire swing in their back yard. All of these things bestowed him with stamina for a night with Mrs. Croft and her slightly sagging, middle-aged breasts.
His parents fought about it the next day. His dad was proud, his mom was embarrassed, and Mrs. Croft was too drunk and stoned to know what she’d done.
Someone on the road was yelling. “Hello? Is anyone hurt?”
Harry tried to yell, ended up coughing. His arm stung and his side felt cold and wet. Each hack brought up crystalline pain that burst from the rocks in his back and sent shards of agony spiraling through his limbs.
The drunken fat man was twitching and drooling on top of him.
Harry wanted to sink into himself, wanted to find his comfort spot, his calm center of happiness. He didn’t know what happiness was anymore. He thought about Mrs. Croft. Thought about Jess, her still-lean body and the way she looked in her uniform, stethoscope draped around her neck. He thought about the carbon bonding process in microelectrolytic oxidation of iron and carbon steel, how it produced pitting that brought rust. He thought about how it could be prevented with a bath in nitric acid followed by a thin coating of tungsten. He thought about children.
Five years into the marriage, Jess wanted to have a baby. They tried and Harry enjoyed the trying. Low sperm count was the prognosis. She discussed in-vitro, surrogate donors, sperm banks. They argued. By the time he gave in, Jess decided her entire life was wrong. Not just Harry and his pathetic balls; their entire middle-class suburban existence. She wanted excitement, she wanted passion and adventure. He proposed a European vacation.
She proposed a divorce.
Harry had the vague notion that someone was standing near him. The fat man was groaning.
A woman said, “Oh my God, are you all right?”
Harry saw the hazy outline of people but wasn’t sure how many. His chest ached and his back stung, and he was pretty sure his arm was broken.
Someone was smothering him and Harry tried to shake them off. He was tired and when he moved his arm, he had to clench his jaw to keep from screaming.
When he opened his eyes, Jess was sitting in front of him. She’d dyed her hair blonde and had taken on a vaguely Hispanic complexion. She leaned in with her stethoscope and listened to his chest. She shouted, “Mr. Gordon, can you hear me?”
When Harry spoke, the plastic facemask he didn’t know he was wearing bobbed and pulled at his chin. “Where am I?”
The woman wasn’t Jess. He knew that. Jess wasn’t Jess anymore and he knew that too.
He was in the back of an ambulance, lying on a gurney with a vaguely Hispanic blonde woman shining a light into his eyes. She looked familiar and he tried to think of where he’d seen her before, but thinking made his head throb.
The woman spoke to someone else, and he thought he heard them discuss the diabetic driver of a minivan, how he would be perfectly fine once they got his blood sugar back up. Then they were discussing another patient with a collapsed lung and a broken ulna and possibly cracked ribs.
Harry went to sleep.
He felt the ambulance beneath him, felt the pinch in his arm as a needle pierced his vein, felt the cold numbness as liquid began dripping into his bloodstream. He was only dimly aware of these things.
A radio cracked somewhere and a siren wailed. Mrs. Croft unbuttoned her blouse and Jess leaned into him and said they would be forever. He wasn’t certain these last two were real.
What if the anodized aluminum were coated with titanium nitride using a thermal spraying technique? Harry imagined a whole series of super-strong, scratch-resistant consumer electronics.
A soft, delicate hand rested on his chest, and a soft, delicate voice said his name. Harry Gordon.
“No, Harry,” the voice said. It sounded like the paramedic. Harry opened his eyes and saw a vaguely Hispanic blonde woman leaning over him. She was crying. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He thought for a moment he was in a hotel room, but he found himself on a gurney in an ambulance. Pain washed over him with a tidal rhythm.
“Your wife paid me to do it,” she said. “She told me where you’d be.”
He didn’t understand why it was so cold or why the screaming siren was so high-pitched. He had to give a presentation, didn’t he? Or did he already? And there was a waddling police officer who didn’t give party favors, and there was a fat man who smelled like candy and wielded a razor.
The woman said, “I’m sorry,” again and pushed a stethoscope against his chest. “I thought it’d be easy,” she said. “Jess told us you were an ass,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry she got caught or sorry it happened? Harry focused on the cold stethoscope against his skin.
Once he made love to Jess when she wore only a stethoscope.
Connections were forming in his mind, loose fragments of neurons that pulsed with electrical currents like pollen on a pre-spring afternoon. He refused a divorce. Jess wanted out. Neither would cheat because cheating was the worst thing a person could do. Or was it? Harry remembered the bar, the blonde, vaguely Hispanic woman who knew his name before he gave it. His pants were off when he woke, but his underwear was still on. In college he distilled ergotamine from rotting rye seeds and made LSD. Mrs. Croft claimed she was too drunk and stoned to remember, but she instructed him. The fat man with the razor who smelled like cotton candy wasn’t drunk. Harry loved chemistry and compounds and manufacturing.
His pants were off but his underwear was on.
Infidelity was not the worst betrayal he could think of. Jess had found something worse.
“You’re going to be all right,” the paramedic said.
Harry thought she might be right.
Later, as he lay on a gurney in a hospital, he thought about animal traps. He believed he now knew what prompted foxes and wolves to gnaw off their own limb to escape. He thought about chemistry, about the random electrons that link the world of matter in unending complex relationships.
Sometimes covalent bonds work and two particles unite. And sometimes the bonds break and you have to wonder if it was ever there to begin with.